We are in the 21st century. We are in one of the richest cities on earth. And yet, the old war between those who employ labor and those who sell their labor is still very much with us. You would think that by our times, with the much-hyped democratization of technology, and the expansion of the middle class, that this old, dreary, and primal business of making a worker work more for less money would be over. Was this not the promise of capitalism? That exploitation by wage suppression would, in the long run, become a thing of the past? Become extinct like the dinosaurs or a relic of a period that had to be exploitive for the noble purpose of accumulating capital (read Kuznet's curve)? And yet, here we are.
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There was a strike at Swedish hospital over wage increases. The employees at the Macy's who are about to lose their jobs protested last week because "the severance package the company... offered[,] one week of pay per year of service [, was] capped at 26 years." Some of the workers have been working there for over 30 years and so had already baked that money into their household budgets. And this week, employees at that the Cinerama lost their jobs without any warning. Please think about this for a moment. It is astonishing. A company (Vulcan) owned by one of the richest men in the 400-year history of capitalism, the late Paul Allen, decided to save money by suddenly depriving its employees at the Cinerama of their primary means of survival, wages. The company did this as if many of its workers live on only oxygen and water. The company did this to cut expenses. Cutting expenses means more money moves up to the top of the business. In short, class war is far from over.
Clearly our city and society as a whole has a surplus of capital, and yet, the raw exploitation of labor persists. Why?
There are some economists, mostly associated with heterodox Marxism, who will insist that the main game of capitalism has not changed one bit because the source of wealth has been and continues to be labor. But what exactly does this mean? Labor is the source of wealth?
It almost sounds like this natural fact: the plant kingdom is the primary producer. Meaning, if you remove plants from our world, you will have no animals, but the same is not true the other way around. Animals (heterotrophs) can't exist without plants, which make their own food (autotrophs). Is this what labor in its present form really is? The primary producer of the wealth of nations? Can labour really exist without capitalists? The basis of communism is that it can and it should and it will. The determining concept of communism, then, is that it liberates labor from parasitic capitalists in much the same way as the extinction of animals would liberate plants to flourish like never before.
My problem with this concept is that it makes money appear to be precisely the same as ATP (the molecule that scientists often describe as the currency of life). We must not fall for this illusion, which has capitalist realism as its projector.
The raw exploitation of workers at Macy's and Cinerama and Swedish is not material—it has, yes, material consequences (a person needs money to live in a house, to eat, to buy clothes, to attend school, and the like). But there is nothing material in the essence of what is called surplus value—the money an entrepreneur makes in excess of a wage, which is then transformed into profits. (Value and profits are not identical—this is made clear by the fact that exploitation can still occur without the realization of profits.) Labor is not the source of wealth because of "human muscle, nerve, brain," in the way that ATP is a product of photosynthetic processes in organelles called chloroplasts. The thing to always keep in mind is that money is not a thing, but a social relationship. This point is, of course, not new to any reader of Marx's mature works. But Marx does not identify the medium of this social relationship. It is, of course, culture.
And so the business of repressing wages must first of all be understood in cultural terms. This goes with homelessness and other forms of imposed scarcity (in the case of class struggle, the imposed scarcity of capital). And so, the reason why the core of all class wars is still with us (the demand for higher wages/the repression of wages) is because it is culturally necessary for the realization of profits.
If this sounds unbelievable to you, please consider that wealth as such (as material) is not really scarce in our society. It's not that there is a lack of things to buy, but that the means of buying these things is, for most Americans, bizarrely hard to obtain. One is always in need of more money, always falling short of expenses, always borrowing more and more to temporarily alleviate real-world difficulties that result from an all-round scarcity of capital. And so, it is not material wealth that's the problem. The stuff labor works for (and often produces) is there and everywhere. No, the problem is the other side of wealth, its valuation. The class war will not make sense until value (which has culture as its medium, and therefore is immaterial) is appreciated.
Early in his career, the late-20th century French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote a series of important of books. One is The Mirror of Production (Le Miroir de la production). It was written in 1973 and is considered by the scholars of his body of work to represent his definitive break with Marxism, and particularly the labor theory of value (LTOV), which, as I said earlier, claims that wealth begins in, and is extracted from, the living hands and hearts and heads of workers. Baudrillard challenged LTOV because it places primacy on use value (material wealth) as the way out of the primacy of exchange value (value as value—or, as immaterial). For the young Baudrillard, there is as much fiction, or, in the language of my thinking, the medium of culture, in use value as exchange value. His point makes perfect sense. Use value, or material wealth, is not the honest or honorable side of capitalism, and therefore, not the real that, like labor, is parasitized by capital. Use value contains as much mumbo jumbo as value. (This insight must be for another post.)
And so, the fact that wages are cut or repressed has nothing to do with nature. It is cultural. It is mumbo jumbo.
As a boy, I was something of a snob. I was raised in a family of professionals. I thought that the rural witch doctors of Zimbabwe were an embarrassment. This business of throwing bones and grinding herbs was the umpteenth of nonsense. It was mumbo jumbo. And yet, I wore Nike sneakers (which mostly consisted of marketing). And yet, I believed the substance of attending college was to improve your position on the job market. And yet, I believed the function of money was to overcome the limits of bartering. Looking back to this snobbish boy in Harare, I can now see he was no better than the witch doctor. Capitalist value is as cultural as those bones rolling on the floor of the hut. Indeed, what could be more mumbo jumbo than this seemingly practical business of cutting wages, laying off workers, or, to be specific, eliminating bonuses for Boeing workers during Christmas in a metropolitan area with 4 million people that have a productive value of $300 billion?