A Pointed Stick or a Backhoe: Take Your Pick.

Suppose you need a trench dug. It needs to be 50 centimetres deep, 120 centimetres wide and 30 metres long. You’ve never had to undertake such a project before. You have a choice of tools: pointed stick, shovel or back hoe. It would take you no time to learn how to use the pointed stick, a small amount of time to learn how to dig with a shovel, but learning how to use the backhoe would take you a substantial amount of time. What would you choose to do?

Now, think about this. You have a choice. You can mobilize 1000 people to dig your trench, 100 people to dig it with a shovel or 1 person to do it with a backhoe. All three of these options would take exactly the same amount of time. What would you choose to do? 

I know what I would do in this situation. I’d hire the guy with the backhoe. I wouldn’t for a minute contemplate hiring 1000 people with pointed sticks to dig my trench. That’s because it’s realistic for me to make this decision in the time and place in which I live. Obviously, if I lived 30,000 years ago, I would not have the option of using a backhoe. A pointed stick would be my only option and I would easily be able to mobilize all the help I need among my tribal members. 

It seems like a no-brainer to think that history has been a steady progress towards more and more sophisticated technology: pointed sticks to shovels to backhoes. However, not everything is what it seems. Let’s see what this situation looks like for someone starting from scratch. Let’s make the scenario really simple. Let’s have you dig a trench 3 metres long, 30 centimetres deep and 20 centimetres in width. 

The pointed stick is indeed a very simple tool and can be gotten with very little effort, sometimes by just picking one up off of the ground under a tree. Simple tools like this allow a person to get right down to work.  A little sharpening with a sharp rock might help if an already pointed stick couldn’t just be found, and some hardening over a fire could make the tool more durable. 

The shovel is a whole other thing. To make a shovel, even a fairly basic one, requires some wood and shaped metal, preferably a hard metal. So, while the person with the pointed stick is hard at work digging the trench, the person who has chosen to dig the trench with a shovel is looking around for a suitable piece of wood for the handle. That shouldn’t be difficult, although the wood may need some shaping. But then finding a suitable metal by mining will be more challenging. Extracting the metal from the ore by smelting then forging the metal and shaping it before fitting it on the handle will complete the project. Chances are pretty good too that more than one person will be involved in the making of a shove. There may be a specialist wood worker, a miner, a smelter and a blacksmith. By the time the shovel is ready for work, the pointed stick wielding worker may well have finished digging his trench. 

The backhoe is hopeless if the challenge is to start from scratch. The guy with the pointed stick would have already cut half a million trenches in the time it would take a person, or even an army of people, to build a backhoe from scratch. 

The Social Character of Human Production

What this all means is that human labour must always be assessed in its social context. All of the tools mentioned above have a certain amount of labour in their making. The sum total of the time it takes to dig a trench with a pointed stick, a shovel or a backhoe is only part of the story. The time it takes to fashion said tools must also be taken into account when calculating the time it takes to make something or accomplish a particular task. The labour embedded in the tool prior to when the digging actually starts is called crystallized labour or dead labour because it’s no longer active, having already played its part in creating the necessary tools to do the job. There is very little crystallized labour in a pointed stick, a lot more in a shovel, and a massive amount more in a backhoe. So, which tool is the most efficient? It depends on the social conditions under which the task is undertaken. 

The reality is that the more sophisticated the tool, the more crystallized labour contained in it. In the case of the backhoe, there are centuries of accumulated knowledge, techniques of raw material acquisition, processing, shaping and assembly probably including thousands of workers in many parts of the globe over many, many years. It also includes the work performed in the petrochemical industries that bring the machine alive so it can perform its duties. The pointed stick and the shovel have no need for extraneous inputs in their operation. Of course, once a backhoe exists it can, with one operator and enough diesel fuel, cut in a month as many trenches as a person with a pointed could cut in a lifetime.[1]

The crystallized labour included in any tool is part of the necessary capital required to produce anything. The tools themselves are capital. Another thing: the amount of capital necessary to produce the backhoe is social capital. It’s taken masses of people centuries to come up with the backhoe. It’s not the work of any single individual. A major aspect of this process is that pooled capital is subject to appropriation by people who organize the productive process but who don’t actually produce anything themselves as individuals. A backhoe is a product of the accumulation of capital and its control by a small minority of the population. So, historically what has happened is that the productive forces, particularly the tools and knowledge needed to make things happen have been increasingly socialized then privately appropriated. That’s history, folks. But what exactly does appropriation mean? 

Capitalist Appropriation

Appropriation means that ownership of the means of production has historically been privatized or concentrated in the hands of a few individuals as soon as there appeared the need for a division of labour or specialization in the productive process. The objective of appropriation early on was to remove control over the process from the people who actually used the tools and did the work. Frederick Winslow Taylor, in the early 20thCentury, created scientific management[2], a process whereby specialized workers, craftsmen, were removed as active agents in the factory to be replaced by managers who broke down the productive process into its constituent parts assigning workers, now disenfranchised, to accomplish just one task along an assembly line. Workers no longer individually created products but contributed only to one task in the process of the creation of a product. The quintessential expression of scientific management early on was implemented by Henry Ford in his assembly-line production of automobiles.

Workers were not too pleased about having their control over the productive process wretched from their large calloused hands so the early 20thCentury featured some of the most active labour protests and strikes in history. Needless to say, the process by which control over production shifted from workers to owners and managers started much earlier than in the 20thCentury as did labour strife. Regardless, the 20thCentury has proven to be THE century of capital’s monopolization of the productive process. In doing so, it has broken down the production of commodities[3]into specialized activities and has globalized the process, a situation made possible by shipping containers, cheap air transport, the internet, just-in-time production tied to supply chains, and the vassalization of countries.[4]It’s clear that the few individuals and the organizations they represent who control global wealth are finding it increasingly difficult to find effective investments. The reasons are simple in conception but complex when aggregate global capitalist activity is considered. 

A Shrinking Rate of Profit

As Marx noted, the only way a capitalist can make a profit through surplus value is by not paying his workers full value for their labour. In fact, profit is essentially the appropriation of unpaid wages. Veblen contested this Marxian notion in his The Place of Science in Modern Civilizationbecause, as he argued, who says workers deserve the right to the full value of their labour. Nevertheless, it’s still true that for many millennia human production has predominantly been a social affair so why shouldn’t we all share equally in what we produce? Well, we could and we might still, but we haven’t to date except for the odd ‘primitive’ situation millennia ago or in more and more marginalized indigenous tribal situations today. 

So, as we carry on today with increasing automation, computerization, AI, and technological innovation, the margins of profit continue to shrink because the more capital or dead labour is used in the productive process, the less room there is to extract surplus value from the process and make a profit. If, for example, Macdonald’s were to successfully replace all of its workforce with robots, it would find it more and more difficult to make a profit by paying its workforce less than the value that it produces. And, of course, robots don’t buy hamburgers, don’t pay taxes. The value of labour embodied in them as capital will allow for some profit to be extracted from the business of making hamburgers, but that basis for the creation of profit will quickly dry up. As the graph below shows, the amount of capital expended in the productive process is increasing historically while the share of labour in the process is steadily decreasing and/or devalued. Where we are along this process is anyone’s guess but I’m certain that we’re well past the midpoint and probably closing in on the far right side of the graph. 

So, as workers we have been systematically excluded from ownership and control over the productive process. Still, Marx found reason to be optimistic about the future. That’s the subject of my next post. 


Figure: Labour and Capital in Human History

[1]These estimates are completely arbitrary of course but are included to approximate the variation in values that are obvious in the scenario introduced.

[2]http://historytransformationofdesign.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/7/2/11722228/taylorism_and_fordism.pdf

[3]https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/commodity.asp

[4]Vassalization: My word for the process by which the finance capitalist global oligarchy has come to treat countries. Certainly, since the 1970s but as a process going back to at least Bretton Woods, finance capital has turned countries or nation-states into vassals. From this perspective, countries are no longer sovereign or democratic, but instead are subordinate managers of the working class and guarantors of private property and private accumulation of capital. 

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:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TivZYFlbX8

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
 INPUTS
raw materials$2.00
equipment$4.00
land$5.00
buildings$5.00
labour$8.00
power$0.50
overhead$4.00
TOTAL$28.50
OUTPUTS
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.

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!

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.

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

by Roger JG Albert

[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything. 

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things. 

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another. 

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation. 

 

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin. 

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter. 

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven. 

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around. 

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago. 

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.