Are poor people moral degenerates?

They certainly are according to capitalist morality.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to fucking Jonathan Pie this post because I’m getting royally impatient and pissed off with you ignorant fuckers out there who, in your self-righteous, holier-than-though attitudes consider poor people to be less than human. Recently someone posted on Facebook that a group of volunteers had cleaned up after a homeless camp had been dismantled here in the Comox Valley. There was a nice photo of the volunteers attached to the item. The comments on this post were mostly supportive of the volunteers, but the odd comment slipped in there that was outrageously stupid as in calling the homeless camp residents ‘filthy pigs.’ Piss me off.

Would you call someone in the hospital dying of cancer a ‘filthy pig?’ Would you call someone who is physically disabled and unable to clean up after themselves ‘filthy pigs? Would you call someone who has been injured and unable to clean themselves or their rooms ‘filthy pigs?’

Some of you might answer yes to the above questions because you’re complete morons. Most of you, I assume, would answer no. The reason most of you would answer no is because you believe that the people who are the objects of the questions are not responsible for their conditions. Still, I think that a number of you who answer no to the above questions would answer yes if I had asked about responsibility. If I had asked: ‘Do you think people dying of cancer in the hospital are responsible for their situation?’ No, you would probably say. ‘Do you think that homeless people are responsible for their situations?’ Yes, you might say even though we know that ‘mental illness’, drug use, and other ‘ailments’ are not much different than cancer to the human body. It’s okay to be physically ill, but don’t be mentally ill because that’s a clear indication that you are morally weak. Cancer patients are not considered morally weak but if something goes wrong in your brain for any number of reasons you’re a loser and a moral degenerate and god forbid you get addicted to drugs or gambling.

So, what’s the basis for our beliefs about illness, homelessness, poverty, and disability? Well, it’s not that complicated although it’s shrouded in obfuscation and ideology. It’s all about morality. Capitalist, Neo-liberal morality. What the hell is that? Isn’t morality all about good and bad, and is it not a guide to how to live life properly? Is morality not just a set of ideas that are more of less universal and agreed upon for the most part? Basic things like those that can be found in the Christian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill, covet thy neighbour’s wife and so on?

Well, those ideas are a part of capitalist morality but not even those ideas stand up to careful scrutiny as being universal behavioural precepts. It all depends on context and situation. Killing is perfectly moral if you’re killing an ‘other’. Morality is fundamentally grounded in material life. Veblen would say that ‘habits of thought’ are based in ‘habits of life.’ There is no such thing as a disembodied morality.

So, what is capitalist, Neo-liberal morality? I’m sure you won’t have any trouble identifying it when I point it out to you. It’s actually based on the ideas of people like the 17th Century writer and philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. He’s the guy who people sometimes quote as arguing that life is short and brutish. He and the ideology he helped spawn were (are) firmly attached to a growing labour situation in England whereby people were being systematically weaned from their relationships with their feudal lords and forced, more of less, into new wage based forms of employment. Capitalist morality is based on the ideas that one must be self-sufficient, that one is responsible for all of one’s actions, that one is in a constant power struggle with everyone else in a society, that one must work hard to ‘earn one’s keep’, that people are a bunch of lazy things that need to be prodded into action, that no individual is beholden to any society, that illness is weakness, that poverty is failure, and that all the good or bad that befalls us is our own doing.

Capitalist morality is based on the ideas that one must be self-sufficient, that one is responsible for all of one’s actions, that one is in a constant power struggle with everyone else in a society, that one must work hard to ‘earn one’s keep’, that people are a bunch of lazy things that need to be prodded into action, that no individual is beholden to any society, that illness is weakness, that poverty is failure, and that all the good or bad that befalls us is our own doing.

Of course all of this is a crock of shit and has been established over and over as a crock of shit by generation after generation of psychologists and social scientists. Problem is, the findings of psychologists and social scientists that don’t accord with the basic principles of capitalism with are summarize by C. B. Macpherson in the phrase ‘possessive individualism,’ are summarily dismissed by those people who have a vested interest in an unequal distribution of wealth which means rich people. Of course, that’s only partially true. Rich people are rich often not because of any stellar performance on their part. They often become rich because they have rich families to inherit money from. To get richer, it helps if you’re already rich, family-wise I mean.

So, in order to illustrate my thinking about morality I want you to think about a wall (why not, walls seem to be popular these days), a metaphorical wall that is. In the rough drawing I did below, you see a blue section in the middle, thin lines that surround that blue section and the thick line that surrounds it all and that’s what I call our moral wall. US and Others are located where they are to illustrate our relationship to ourselves and to others. Others, those people we just can’t relate to at all because they live in places very foreign to us, we consider outside our moral wall. They don’t even figure in our conceptions of morality, or of what’s good or bad. They are barely considered human. “US” on the other hand includes all people who share a world dominated by capitalist social relations. The closer one gets to the middle, the stronger the pull of Hobbesian ideas and real concentrations of wealth and power. The concentric rings represent groups of people who are related to the concentration of wealth but in various intensities and amounts. The closer one is to the vortex or black hole at the centre, the more one represents the ideals of capitalism and individualism and the closer to the wall one gets the weaker our relationship is to capitalist production. So, for example, people occupying the absolute (blue) centre are the 1% who control the greatest proportion of human wealth. The people who occupy the 2nd ‘arrondissement’ are still very wealthy but generally work as close advisors or specialists to the people in the dead centre.* The people in the 3rd ‘arrondissement’ are wealthy middle class investors, managers, CEOs, etc. The people in the 4th ‘arrondissement’ are the supporting class, the technicians, educated specialists who do the bidding of the 1% and of the people in the closer ‘arrondissements’. The people who occupy the 5th ‘arrondissement’ are generally technically trained but poorly educated cadre, often moderately well-paid but unhappy because of their distance from the centre. They so want to be rich. They buy lottery tickets. They so want to be like the people in the centre that they have tummy aches over it. They adore the people in the centre and know they can do no wrong otherwise how would they get to the centre of our moral universe in the first place? They must be blessed by God! Whatever the 1% do is fine by them even if it’s often considered illegal. If it is illegal, it’s legitimate to ignore the law of push to have it changed. The people in the 6th ‘arrondissement’ are the uneducated, the poorly trained, the unemployed, the poor, the marginal folks of all kinds. These people either see the 1% as gods to bow down to and revere (Trump followers) or as devils to resist in every way possible (progressives).

Now, the thing about people in the 6th arrondissement is that they often also look at the centre with melting hearts knowing always that their distance from the centre of our moral universe is all their fault. If only they had been better people, worked harder, made better decisions. dressed better, were better looking, went to school, everything would be hunky-dory. We absorb these feelings into the very fabric of our existence. They colour the way we see the world, and how we treat others.

That said, there’s people all the way through the multiple ‘arrondissements’, at least at the lower levels, that know the morality embodied in this fictitious moral world is bullshit. They know that there’s something wrong with a world based on defining personal worth by reference to how much wealth one has accumulated in one’s life and how well one did in the competition for scarce resources. Maybe they have gotten an education and have had to agree with social scientists that capitalism is not a natural human condition, but only a phase in history, one we would do well to escape as soon as possible before it destroys us all. Capitalist Neo-liberlism truly is a world without love (intimate connections with others), compassion and caring. Individuals who demonstrate love, caring and compassion are often ridiculed, marginalized, and called weak.

If we can get through this, I’m optimistic about the future. If we can’t beat the capitalist cancer that threatens to do us all in, we will succumb to the planet’s rejection of us because of our stupid overconsumption and lack of consideration of the world around us, the plants and animals that we need to survive and thrive. A pissed-off planet is not good for us humans. We are going to go extinct one way or another, but we don’t have to rush into it and drag most other species on the planet with us.

  • The dead centre of this moral world of ours is populated by individuals, certainly, but also by organizations like banks that concentrate wealth. So the situation is very complex on the ground but simple conceptually.

My next post: how is about how capitalist wealth is increasingly concentrated and why.

The Space Merchants: The Prescient Misters Pohl and Kornbluth*

I love strange books with compelling titles and The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth fits the bill.  This book, first published in 1952 but with the seventh and last printing taking place in 1972, was printed in the U.S.A.  It’s based sometime in the future and looking back to it’s publication in 1952 from a 2012 vantage point is a bit  strange.  Pohl and Kornbluth obviously had to design a future that was credible to a 1952 readership still infused with memories of World War II and trying to deny the existence of the Korean War.  In some ways, that’s not too difficult a task, but in other ways the challenge is daunting.  For instance, the characters in the book still use phones like in 1952, board planes on the tarmack at airports and smoke incessantly, but space travel is common.  The book is about the marketing business and how it has evolved.  Lies are common and the bigger the lie the better.  Products are not simply advertized anymore.  Marketing businesses create products to sell not based on their utility but on their salability.  (How far is THIS from our current reality?) They are trying to sell people on Venus colonization.  How can they make Venus attractive to potential colonists?  It’s virtually uninhabitable.  I leave it to you to find a copy of the book to see how the main character in the book, Mitchell Courtenay, gets along.  What I want to highlight here is a simple paragraph on page 7 of my edition of the book which reads:

“Fowler Schocken inclined his head.  ‘Thank you, Matthew,’ And he meant it.  It took him a moment before he could go on.  ‘We all know,’ he said, ‘what put us where we are.  We remember the Starrzalius Verily account, and how we put Indiastries on the map.  The first spherical trust.  Merging a whole subcontinent into a single manufacturing complex.  Schocken Associates pioneered on both of them.  Nobody can say we were floating with  the tide.  But that’s behind us.”

Indiastries [my emphasis].  ‘Now that’s prescient,’ I thought to myself.  Pohl and Kornbluth project into the future a trend that was in its infancy in 1952 with post-war globalization and geopolitics, that is, the corporate drive to find cheaper raw materials and labour wherever they might be.  Of course, that’s a movement or trend that started long before epitomized by Christopher Columbus and his P3 venture, but did it ever take off after WW II.  Now, global business corporations scour the globe like bottom feeders, looking for the cheapest raw materials and the cheapest labour.  In the case of raw materials, its a little more difficult than with labour.  Raw materials are found where they lie in the earth.  It’s possible for hard rock mining companies, oil producers and other exploiters of the earth’s ‘natural resources’ to more to parts of the earth previously unexplored to uncover precious commodities like gold.  Canadian mining corporations are all over Mexico, Central and South America mining and exploring for minerals.  That doesn’t mean Canada has no gold left in ‘them thar’ hills, but the ‘business climate’ is much better in Mexico and the near absence of environmental regulation (or their enforcement) is just fine, thank you.  And labour is cheap, cheap, cheap. For secondary or value added manufacturers and businesses operating in the service sector, the ‘Third World’ is their oyster.  They’ve managed to cut deals with impoverished governments all over the world to set up export processing zones (EPZs) which are sometimes secured compounds, sometimes entire cities or regions, where powerful global corporations can set up shop, exploit cheap labour, pay no duties, no taxes, and face no environmental or health and safety regulations.  Corporations have flocked to the EPZs.  ‘Our’ corporations are abandoning North American, Japanese, European, Australian and South Korean labour and moving production to EPZs or other facilities in the ‘Third World’ at an exponential rate.  There is no turning this around.  China and India are big players in providing cheap labour for ‘our’ corporations making it hard to pick up any ‘consumer’ product these days that’s not manufactured there.  But make no mistake about it.  Those products are not Chinese or Indian products.  They are Nike, Apple, Dell, Monsanto, Nestlé, Wal-Mart, etc., etc, products produced by cheap labour in poor countries bypassing ‘expensive’ labour ‘here.’

So, Indiastries.  Looks like it’s well on the ways to reality. India harnessed as a whole by a single manufacturing trust. With how rapidly things are changing these days, how far down the road can that be? Pohl and Kornbluth were pretty prescient guys. Only problem I find with their scenario is who’s going to buy all these wonderful products made in India and elsewhere in the ‘Third World?’  Won’t be workers here because they’re putting us out of work as fast as they can.  We’ll see how it goes.

  • This is a re-blog of a post I wrote in 2012. I think it’s quite relevant following my last post.

A Series of Blog Posts or a Book?

So, after I asked in a recent post for ideas of what I should write about, Jack Minard sent me this:

Write about the difference between political or social organization and economic organization. I.e. do democracy and capitalism have any hope of co-existing well? Always seemed like a bad marriage to me! Doesn’t capitalism depend on inequality while democracy would do best with complete equality of opportunity? Of course there are differences in people. Some “cream” will always rise to the top… your thoughts?

Well, I started writing a post in respond to Jack’s comment a few days ago and before long I was up to 5000 words and I felt that I had barely touched the subject. A friend suggested a series of blog posts and I’m leaning in that direction although others have suggested that I should write a book. At 72, a book seems a little daunting although I surely have enough material to write one. Blog posts seem more manageable. I don’t know. I’m still making up my mind. However, Jack opened up a porthole to my memory of the countless books and articles I’ve read over the decades as well as the uncountable number of hours I’ve spent in thinking about these things and in teaching about them. Ask Carolyn how often she’s caught me in a virtual altered state as I explored in my mind all the threads of evidence and connection I’ve collected over the decades of thought and contemplation. She’d be talking to me and I’d be off somewhere in my mind wondering about a sentence in Marx or Veblen, Innis, Nietzsche, Elias, or Becker. I have been known to be ‘into myself’ for hours if not days and weeks on end, lost in thought. It’s been my adult life, but I can recall that even in my early teens I had an insatiable curiosity about things as my father discovered over and over again as I would dissect clocks, motors, engines and whatever else was at hand in an effort to learn about their workings and their essences. I still do that with words.

So, what about democracy and capitalism? To be sure, there’s a lot to be said and a lot has already been said about ‘them’. Of course, the word is not the thing as Plato and others have remarked nor is the map the territory (Korzybski), and both democracy and capitalism have to be explored as concepts as well as more or less real worldly phenomena. When I was still teaching, I pointed out to my students that dictionaries are closed systems. Try this: take a word like map. Go to its dictionary definition and then go to the definitions of each word that’s used to define it. You’ll soon discover that you end up in a rabbit hole with no exit: The map is a representation, the representation is a map, and so on. Democracy is a fine concept, then, but what is its reality? Rule by the people? What does rule mean? And who are The People? Does democracy imply that each individual participates in the exercise of power? If the leaders of a country tout it as the greatest democracy ever on the planet are we to just take their word for it? How do we decide if a country is REALLY a democracy? These are all questions I will attempt to answer in subsequent blog posts.

Capitalism is easier to define in some ways than democracy although there is some disagreement as to the effective use of the concept. I personally don’t use it, but because jack brought it up, I’ll explain. Fernand Braudel, one of my favourite social historians, wrote that Marx never used the term. Re-reading Marx’s work with the specific intention of proving Braudel wrong, I had to conclude that, no, he was correct. I haven’t found the term anywhere in Marx and if there’s anyone who would have used it, it would be Marx. But he didn’t. The reason is fairly simple. Whenever an ism is added to a word, it refers to a system, a movement, something like that. Wikipedia notes: Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Marx defined his work as the materialist conception of history and he was not impressed with other theorists who tended to see structures and systems independently of them as a process. Marx uses the notion of the capitalist historical mode of production to describe the focus of his analysis. This may seem like just semantics, but it’s not. Capitalism as a word describes a set of relationships frozen in time and place. Marx was more interested in the historical development of capitalist relations of production born in feudal relations and still with us. Marx wrote in the Introduction to Capital, Volume 1 (I paraphrase): “All I have wanted to do is the same for political economy that Darwin did for biology.” Engels repeated this same sentiment in his eulogy to Marx in 1883. That doesn’t mean that Marx was looking for a mechanism like natural selection in political economy. I’ll explore this further in another blog post. Why do I spend so much time here on what Marx had to say? Because his work, not entirely original but still seminal, is not to be denied in any discussion of the capitalist mode of production and its special place in history. Marx understood that the capitalist mode of production would inevitably go global and he was correct. Needless to say, capital is high on my list of fun things to think about along with labour.

What is the relationship historically between the capitalist mode of production and political systems like democracy? Neither depend on each other, that’s certain, not theoretically, nor in practice. This is one very important theme I will explore in the coming weeks.

So, I guess I’ve decided to go with blog posts rather than a book. I suppose blog posts can be pasted together to make a book in any case. So it probably doesn’t matter. That said, I have lots to say about capitalism and democracy and their surrogates, business and representative government. I’ll do that in the next many posts I write. I’ll use Canada as a subject in most cases but the United States is also in my crosshairs. I’ll roam around European history and literature. I’ll return to my dissertation and comment on Harold Innis’ notions on nationalism. I’ll throw in some Veblen. Marx will appear here and there as will a slew of other writers. I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics, but clarification of terms is essential. The first chapter in Bertell Ollman’s book Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society is called: With words that appear like bats. It’s worth it, I think, to take a bit of a stroll through Ollman’s book, something you can do for free by clicking on the title of his book above. I say this not only as a reference to Marx and his critics, but to the use of words in general. So many words appear like bats, flitting in and out of the dusk so fast it’s hard to get a good look at them. Democracy and capitalism are those kinds of words. Batty they are, but maybe with the right camera we can at least get a good approximation of what they represent and how they relate to one another. Stay tuned.

See what you’ve done, Jack Minard!

Trump plays silly buggers with trade.

It’s hard not to think of Trump as either silly or cynical.  His economic nationalism is skating on very thin ice and is impossible given the current state of capitalist industry and finance in the world today. Trump should know that capital has long considered national borders as an inconvenience, an opportunity to make more capital, but certainly not as impenetrable walls. His own campaign material was printed in China. His ‘Make America Great Again’ hats were made in China. What the hell is he thinking? It may be that he doesn’t care a wit about any of this because nationalism and flag waving are big sellers in the US. If enough Americans buy into his strategy, if in fact he has one, he can safely ignore his anti-globalist stance in practice and get on with making more money for himself and his cronies. He promised Appalachia that coal would return. It won’t. Empty promises don’t matter, it seems. China and Canada are mean and unfair to poor little USA. ‘Yes! That’s right!’ shout his acolytes. Blame others, that’s it. The people will lap it up. As long as people believe him, Trump feels safe. That would make him the consummate cynic. Do you buy into the idea that Trump knows exactly what he’s doing? His popularity is slowly waning however so he had better watch his ass. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I want to repeat here what I’ve written before, at least in its essence, elsewhere in this blog (among other places). Yes, I will be repetitious in this post, but only because sometimes repeating a message over and over again is the only way to get through to some people. Of course the people I would like to convince to look more deeply into Trump’s politics are not likely to read this blog. Research, science and thoughtful criticism are not where they turn to for ideas on current political affairs. Belief is enough for them, heart and feeling trump brain. Because Trump is so high on America First, I want to outline some ideas that have been kicking around for centuries about the relationship between countries and capital. Where do American corporations fit into Trump’s world of international trade? Where do international industrial practices, just in time production, export processing zones and globalist production, distribution and consumption fit in Trump’s world? Who knows? However, I don’t think it matters much because capital is bigger than Trump and bigger than the American political system. Capital will eventually eclipse all politics and we’ll be left with who knows what. That may be the end of our tenure on this planet. I have no idea. The problem is that we are such a species full of contradictions. We can do amazingly wonderful things then in the blink of an eye turn into murderous butchers. But back to my point. There is a ton of books that have been published in the 19th, 20th and now in the 21st century about the relationship between countries and capital, but they haven’t seemed to have convinced most people that countries are no longer the repositories of capital and haven’t been for a couple of centuries. Most of the books and scholarly articles I’ve read, and I’ve read dozens on this subject, are clear that capital has long since eclipsed countries as the seat of political economic power. Barnet and Muller in their book Global Reach: The Power of Multinational Corporations from 1976, the year I entered graduate school, argue that of the 100 most powerful economic entities on the planet, 49 of them were multinational corporations (MNCs). I’m sure that ratio is now even more skewed towards MNCs than it was then. I suggested earlier in this post that I was about to write about capital, so what am I doing writing about multinational corporations? Well, MNCs are the seat of capital, the embodiment of what capital means and stands for. They are the crystallization of capital, the vehicles for the generation, circulation and consumption of capital and ultimately its concentration. It might be informative at this stage to define what I mean by capital. I’m not going to do that except to say that capital is the means of creating and re-creating wealth although people commonly equate capital with money. Actually, Marx defined capital in the 1860s with his book, Capital. If you want to understand capital, read Marx, then read some more. A recent book by Thomas Piketty (2017) called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes up Marx’s challenge and does a fair job of it. His argument carries on where Marx left off. He clearly documents how capital has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few corporations and individuals (the 1%) over the past three centuries. It’s been a slow but inexorable process. I’ve already argued in this blog on several posts that countries were a creation of capital to start with. ‘Modern’ capital was initially dominated by merchant capital, think Christopher Columbus, (starting in the 11th Century and even before), was replaced eventually in the mid 18th Century by industrial capital, think Wedgwood, then in the late 19th Century by finance capital, now, of course, think Rothschild and Goldman Sachs. That doesn’t mean that all forms of capital haven’t survived, it just means that the dominant form of capital has changed over the decades. In the face of the persistent and overwhelming power of capital, countries went from being somewhat independent political entities with more or less functioning economies to essentially servants of capital and managers of the working class. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a process not an event. As Harold Innis (1894-1952), a political economist and professor at the University of Toronto, wrote in the 1940s, politicians rely on national statistics to support their power. The Canadian government collects national statistics and ostensibly relies on them to make political decisions. Stephen Harper did not like Statistics Canada because it often reported in ways he did not approve of. Innis knew that national statistics were often a sham and he said so. Think of this possible scenario: General Motors sends a car it assembled in Oshawa to Michigan. Stats Can considers this a transaction that needs to be reported under the heading: international trade. Or this: Canada’s petrochemical industry is overwhelmingly owned by American companies. They ship their product along their pipelines from Canada (Alberta) to the US for refining. That is international trade. It strikes me that if we want to get a grip on how ‘our’ economy works we need to abandon our traditional way of collecting statistics or we must at least map out how large multinational corporations do business across borders. William Carroll at the University of Victoria studies international supply chains. His work is illuminating, but the situation is changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative:
  • U.S. goods imports from China totaled $505.5 billion in 2017, up 9.3% ($42.9 billion) from 2016, and up 57.3% from 2007. U.S. imports from are up 394% from 2001 (pre-WTO accession). U.S. imports from China account for 21.6% of overall U.S. imports in 2017.
These are impressive statistics, but what real story do they tell? Well, for one, when the Trade Representative notes that ‘imports from China account for 21.6% of overall U.S. imports in 2017, does he include iPhones in that calculation? Apple assembles iPhones in China via a contractor called Foxconn. Foxconn has plants all over the place, not just China and parts for iPhones may very well come from Thailand or the Check Republic. Is an iPhone a Chinese product considered an import from China? China has established social processing zones also known as export processing zones (EPZs) where foreign corporations like Apple can come and set up shop without paying all those annoying local taxes while, in many instances, ignoring health and safety regulations and paying very low wages. Some of these EPZs are huge encompassing whole cities and surrounding areas. EPZs exist in many parts of the world we used to call the ‘Third World.” They are where our toys, clothes, and a myriad of other products are made and/or assembled. All of these products are ‘made’ by American or Canadian manufacturers, who now maybe should be called importers, but they still call the shots in every way. The automobile industry assembles cars here and there but the parts come from all over the globe. Engines can arrive at an assembly plant in Québec or Michigan ready to be dropped into a car, so are all drive train parts. Body parts can be pressed in Mexico and batteries can also come from there. There is no such thing as a “Canadian” car. Trump either knows this and doesn’t care or has it in for the  auto sector for some reason. I wonder if Trump has done the political economic calculus on his tariff plans for the ‘Canadian’ auto industry or if he just wanders off flying by the seat of his pants making decisions that are clearly arbitrary. It’s been well established that putting tariffs on ‘Canadian’ cars will put a significant dent in the profits of American car companies. Trump doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe he thinks it’s fake news. Some people have argued that Trump is just trying to force American corporations to manufacture their products on American soil. The fact is, that horse has already left the barn and there’s no way of getting it back, even if plants could retool. It used to be that the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan imported from around the US and abroad all the raw materials required to build a car, manufacture the parts and assemble the cars on site. That is no longer the case and hasn’t been since the creation of shipping containers and the need to acquire parts more cheaply than possible from American sources only. ‘American’ cars are manufactured all over the world. Capital, like the weather, ignores borders. We live in a global world with a global economy. The existence of nation-states or countries is still a fact because taxes need to be collected and passed on to the corporations and workers need to be managed. So far, it seems better to do that locally than globally. That may very well change and there are signs that it is. Trump’s Americans are not happy about the decline of their precious country, but their world is not contained within their borders and the sooner they realize that the better.

What Will a Post-Employment Future Look Like?

One of my former students, a frequent commentator on my blog, commented on my last post about my disillusionment and the nature of capital. She asked two questions in particular that I will address in this post:

“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?”

These are both good questions. To answer the first one, I’ll say right off that I’m no utopian. I leave the musings about future worlds to the utopians, dystopians, novelists and science fiction writers. There are enough Star Wars and Star Treks to go around. Still, there are some things I can say about the future that are science-based and predictable. However, it’s necessary to first think about what ‘mankind’s survival’ means.

The word survival needs some consideration. Ultimately, none of us, nor any of our marvellous creations survive or ‘live beyond’. Science, especially palaeontology, archaeology and related disciplines, have made it clear that our planet has only been around for a few billion years and we, as a species, have only evolved in that last few million. Us modern humans are a very recent addition to the planet and as with everything else, we’re still evolving and will continue to do so until we go out of existence, and that’s a sure thing. I used to challenge my students to come up with an example of anything that was amenable to perception via our senses that had not or would not come into existence at some point and go out of existence at a later point. Everything comes and goes. Life is a process, not a thing. Of course, I’m sure you can come up with a lot of “what if’s” here as in what if we blow ourselves to bits with nuclear weapons before we get a chance to evolve more or less peacefully out of existence? That may happen. We may try to commit species suicide, but it’s highly unlikely that every human on the planet would be eliminated by nuclear war. I’ll let the dystopians speculate on that one.

Besides, species don’t always disappear completely. They often evolve into other species over long periods of time. So, ultimately, survival is not an option for us, nor is it for any other species. It’s not even  an option for mountain ranges and continents, or the universe, according to some scientists. Nothing ever stays the same. Our limited sensual and perceptual abilities and weak sense of time often prevent us from fully appreciating that.

That said, and moving on, mankind will easily survive the advent of robots and extreme mechanization. I think my student’s question was more in line with the question: “what are we going to do when robots do everything for us?” I really don’t know. Probably some of the things we do now. Work will still need to be done. It is on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (Do you think people get paid on the Enterprise? What would they spend their money on, especially when you can order an Earl Grey tea, hot, at the replicator anytime you want without putting a toonie in a slot?)

Marx actually speculated on a post-capitalist world in one of his books, The German Ideology, but lived to regret it because he was afterwards forever branded a wide-eyed utopian. Later in his life he focussed almost entirely on writing Das Kapital, a basically scientific venture. By then he had abandoned his youthful idealistic philosophizing and political pamphlet writing. But I digress.

What I argued in my last post was that employment would come to an end, not work. I should have made that more clear. Employment is a way work gets organized. Working for wages is only one of many ways work can get organized. Slavery is another way. Work can get done too by volunteers. The point is that employment will disappear but work won’t. To take this one step further: Marx concluded (not specifically in these words) that communism will come when we are all unemployed. Now, that’s not strictly true. Markets existed in ancient Egypt, they just weren’t the dominant means of creating wealth. In the future, if things continue as they are, some employment may still exist, but it won’t be the dominant social relation of production.

The truth is, businesses are rapidly eliminating employees in a number of critical large scale industries. Machines have been eliminating, at an accelerating pace, a lot of the more onerous and dangerous tasks we used to perform as a matter or course. Who would have thunk that lawyering could be automated. It can be and already is to some extent. There are research algorithms that can do away with a lot of the work previously done by junior lawyers and minions in law firms. Lawyers will still be with us for some time, of course, but they don’t have any long term immunity from elimination. Same goes for physicians and surgeons. Very few activities we now take for granted have a guaranteed future. That idea seems impossible at the moment, but could a person living when the Gutenberg press was invented have been able to foresee the use of computerized printing, freeways and skyscrapers?

The point here is that the historical trajectory we are on suggests that capital is replacing labour at a greater pace than ever before in the execution of work. The mechanism by which this occurs is the constantly shrinking margins of profit and the inability of the whole capitalist world (not necessarily individual capitalists) to exploit workers.* In practical terms, if a large scale fast-food chain manages to eliminate most of its workforce, it will have a harder and harder time making money. This is partly because in eliminating its workforce it would also be eliminating a major market for its products. Obviously, there is no direct equivalence between workers and their ability or not to buy hamburgers, but if enough businesses eliminate a significant part of their labour force, there is obviously less and less in the way of aggregate wages to buy commodities. It’s true that fast-food workers could go work elsewhere, but if most other large employers are also doing the same thing, there will soon be nowhere to go. Meet a huge number of American workers. That’s exactly  the situation they’re in. Some may ‘choose’ to become self-employed, but that’s just another way of surreptitiously eliminating employment.

Employment will not be eliminated next week, or next month or next year. Probably not in the next 100 years. But it will be. If that’s true, how will we then sustain ourselves? With no wages, what would we do to buy things? Well, the trick here is to avoid thinking about the future in terms of the present. That’s tough. We have stores full of stuff for us to buy. What would they do? Change drastically, that’s what. Can you imagine a ‘store’ where you walk in, take what you need and leave (legally, that is)? Hoarding? Why would anyone hoard if they can get whatever they need anytime they need it? Besides, we have to ask ourselves why we need all the ‘stuff’ we buy. Do we really need it to be happy, to be fulfilled? As I already noted, we can’t think about a future world by simply imposing our current institutions on it.

Wow, is this a utopia I promised not to get into? I don’t think so. The logical conclusion of the elimination of employment is the elimination of employer/employee relations, wages, salaries and the need for any kind of benefits.  Some countries are already moving toward a guaranteed income for everyone out of the pool of income produced nationally by way of industrial production and business profits. Their education and health services are already paid for by the state.

Earned salaries and wages will no longer exist. Won’t that do away with human initiative? Yes, as we know it. But following the logic of the falling rate of profit to its conclusion suggests a number of consequences we cannot predict at this time. What will people do in a world without employment? Lots of things. Like I said, work will not be eliminated and may be more popular than ever. Most jobs will be eliminated however and, frankly, that looks like a good thing from where I sit right now. Many women who for a long time have not been paid for domestic work might also approve. If they don’t get paid for what they do, then why should the rest of us? Seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s no more fantastical than the creation of employment in the first place. Jobs have not always existed, that category of labour was created in Europe starting around the 11th century,  but work has always been necessary because things need to get done. What may come of all of this is a much more equal distribution of the fruits of social production. How that would unfold politically I have no idea except to say that it would have to be a global affair. It may not come peacefully either.

As fodder for a future blog post, one thing I’ve always found fascinating is our love affair with our jobs. Maybe a topic for another post. It’s funny, though, why we seem to crave vacations and get lots of congratulations upon our retirement. Maybe we don’t love our working lives so much after all because we seem happiest when we don’t have working lives or when we ‘vacate’ them.

As a bit of an aside, but a point still relevant to make here, some of us were (in my case as a retiree) and are quite happy with the work we did or do. We were/are the fortunate ones. I loved teaching, but I didn’t particularly love my job. I liked the pay too, of course, but a paycheque is only one way that’s possible to reward a person for doing work. I’ll save this for another blog post too.

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*This statement itself requires much more elaboration, but I’ll save that for another post.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wealthy Need The Poor

Just a quick note to start off the day. The title says it all. The wealthy need the poor. In fact, it doesn’t matter who ends up poor, it just matters that many people do. I mean, who can know if someone is wealthy if there are no poor people around to compare them to? No, poor people are essential to the wealthy for many reasons. First, they make a great cautionary tale, as in, “see what can happen to you, my child if you don’t put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, aspire to the things that make us rich and believe in free entreprise, because mygawd it’s our way to glory and eternity.” Of course, in the same vein, they are also a great example of how not to live your life. “Those people have made a poor choice in parents. You’ve at least started life not making that mistake!” They are also a great source of cheap labour and can’t save any money so everything they make goes right back into the hands of business. What a great setup.

Actually, it’s  really quite simple. We live in a class society no matter how much we attempt to deny it. Wealth and poverty are a consequence of that, not the cause. So we have rich and poor people as an inevitable consequence of the way our society has evolved. Wealth is a major moral goal so poverty must be a major moral failure. So we merrily blame the poor for their circumstances and for all the ills of the world. We don’t have the good sense to see who and what are really to blame.

Strangely enough, there is no such thing as ‘capitalism’, which is a word that would describe a system of wealth accumulation that can be compared to the evil isms, socialism and communism. Capitalism is an a-historical concept that fails to take history into account. Capital accumulation and the rapid concentration of wealth in finance capital will come to an end. What will come after? I have some sense of that in very broad terms but that’s the subject of another post.