Thursday, January 3, 2019

On Capitalism's Limitations

Every year, when we get to the part of my philosophy course where we read some Marx & Engels, and I ask for criticisms of the reading, like I do with every other political philosopher we read, instead of thinking and devising astute observations, there's always a few who are adamant: "Communism is fine in theory but doesn't work in real life." This is a truism chanted without much thought needed to repeat it. But then I ask, "Can't the same be said for capitalism?" And, "What do you mean by work? What does it look like when a political theory works?"

'Capitalism = good; communism = bad' is still a dominant mantra. One support they raise for their position is, "Why be a doctor if you make the same as a janitor?" Despite the rewarding sense of self-efficacy experienced from rising to our potential, Marx & Engels are very clear that their system does NOT require everyone be paid the same rate, merely that nobody be exploited in the attainment of profit:
"We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others. All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it." 

Students also think communism is impossible because of the greedy leader who will take those high taxes and use them to satisfy his own desires, leaving the people impoverished, and I ask how that's different from the world we live in today. Instead of government taxing wages after they're paid, corporations (with the help of governments that keep the minimum wage low) just take the money before it hits the paycheque. It's more efficient that way, and capitalism is all about efficiencies. The whole idea of capital is based on exploitation, on using people to turn a profit. It's foundational to capitalism to make money off the labour of others, to skim off the top for your own benefit. But one person's 'surplus' is another's electricity bill. Employers only pay employees that can add more than the cost of their own labour or else there's no profit for the employer to recoup. Profit is money made by the worker, but taken by the manager. Can we prove otherwise, that the owner of a company deserves millions per day while the workers who make the company run deserve just enough to live? Is the effort to organize the people worth 300 times the effort of the people? The seems to me to be one of the most important questions here.

A final common support for maintaining the capitalist utopia we live in is that it would be impossible to shift from here to there. How do we possibly begin?

Well, here are some ideas:

American economics professor Richard Wolff went to speak to this small group of students at cost in this 90 minute video, but he explains his ideas more succinctly here, in only 17 minutes: "When and Why Will Capitalism End?" In a nutshell...

He says capitalism produced billionaires like Jeff Bezos whose fortunes provide him, at a 5% rate, with $22 million each day just in interest on personal investments. This is money that could be used for the poor, or we could let the rich get richer. Some think that the problem with American capitalism is monopolies have stopped free competition, so it's no longer really a capitalist country. Wolff argues that the real problem is that it is capitalistic. Capitalism necessarily produces inequality. It's an unstable system that tanks every 4-7 years. It creates uneven development with high concentrations in some areas and nothing in others.

To get equality, liberty, and fraternity, we have to get rid of capitalism. He says the economy is at the worst case he has seen in his lifetime for a couple reasons. First, outsourcing: there are more employees working for less pay since China and Russia markets opened to the west. That changed the balance between employers and the mass of low paid workers, and the last 50 years has been a working out of this situation, which is a crisis for the working class.

In class, we look at the problem: What do we do about the poor rising up to 'steal' the wealth of the rich? Aristotle said the best solution is to ensure that they're cared for, that they have a comfortable enough life that they don't consider attacking the rich: "Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime." He wasn't a fan of total equality, at all, but he did see the benefits of ensuring all people are living well. Adam Smith agreed. But James Madison took a different path and instead warned of the dangers of universal suffrage. To keep the poor from attacking, it's most efficient to remove their rights. That's the direction the U.S. took, and here's where we are.

Back to Wolff, secondly, at this point, despite attempts to disenfranchise citizens throughout the history of the U.S., there's no way to handle the political impact of massive poverty. The rich have been managing it so far by buying out politicians, which means the masses can't derive their solution from politics, but that's not going to hold much longer. It has caused people to "try wild things like voting for Trump or Brexit." Capitalism has "produced a network of problems that it can't solve." Soon trade wars will become military wars.

The solution, according to Wolff, is to stop looking at the problem at a macro level, but to focus on the micro level of the workplace to correct the issue. We need to ensure that all places of employment are run democratically, with one body, who adds his labour to the product, having one vote. Employees won't let the boss get away with making three or four hundred times their wage.

The CEO might be able to convince worker that he should get more as the owner of the means of production, but how much more would be up to the workers. Immediately the owners would have to kowtow to the workers in hopes of better pay. And they could vote to remove job-destroying technology from the company. Wolff argues, "Liberating the employee is the end of capitalism."

He doesn't say how to begin in either of those videos, but it would likely have to start with one corporation deciding this is a better way and acting against the pressures from wealthy friends. No politician, well financed by lobbyists, would legislate this. Someone like Nick Hanauer might be up to the task to make the first step. As long as people are struggling to survive, they'll take whatever job is offered, but once people see there is a better way, it gives them something to fight for, and then they either revolt, or the government and other corporations capitulate. Wolff admits any new system will still have new problems, but we'll at least solve the mess we're currently in.

Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis was interviewed on Think Again (60 min.) a few months ago. He wants everyone to understand economics clearly, so he wrote a book aimed at 12-year-olds.  He says we're living under an oligarchy presented as a democracy, and have to take internalized concerns outward so avoid depression. We've been indoctrinated to think we're in a democracy by bankers funding TV shows; the more channels in capitalism means more versions of the same lie. The problem with capitalism is that it turns everything into a commodity. Even meditating is commodified and, instead of it being a tradition for the masses, it's a class luxury. Production is no longer for people to have experiences; it's for producers to sell things. This affects our personal values from concern with being a good person to concern with what's in it for me.

He says that technology can take us in two directions: either we'll end up in Shelley's Frankenstein where our creation bites back at us, or Star Trek's utopia where all slaves are robots so we're free to enjoy more creative lives. From my experiences, tech for the sake of tech, to see if we can, isn't always useful to us. We need to plan how and why we use tech. According to Gwynne Dyer, tech is taking more jobs than outsourcing. If we use machines to do the work of people, and the purpose is just to put more money in the hands of the few while causing the many to be unemployed, then that's not beneficial to society. Goods end up a bit cheaper, but that doesn't help when too many people can't afford anything beyond the basic necessities anyway. It can work alongside basic income, but not without it. If people are struggling to survive, other people can take advantage of that desperation. It could be argued that so many fewer workers are exploited now because job losses, and don't we wish we could be exploited again! But, of course, that argument paints a false dichotomy between starvation and near starvation set up by people making millions of dollars per day from the labour of their employees.

Varoufakis says that austerity policies extend crises. Many refugees in Lesbos are left in true concentration camps without any sense of a timeline, so they aren't able to plan for the future. But, with a sense of solidarity (like Chomsky argues for), we could spread the burden and benefits of migrants around Europe if we treat the EU as if it's actually borderless. There is no true free market without government controls; like Robert Reich says, the real question is who do the rules benefit and who do they hurt. The best period of history was in the 1950s and 60s, when the New Deal was globalized with fixed income rates. Similar to Wolff, Varoufakis argues that we need a system where there's only capital in a company for people directly contributing labour. It benefits people to pool their labour, but in current corporate structures, people pool their labour but don't get any returns.

Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher discussed in a recent New Yorker article, by Nathan Heller, questions the common mindset that we can't have freedom and equality at once, that either we're restricted and equal, or free and unequal. (Read her essay here.)
"What if they weren’t opposed, Anderson wondered, but, like the sugar-phosphate chains in DNA, interlaced in a structure that we might not yet understand? . . . Almost everyone wants to be respected and esteemed by others, so how can you make that compatible with a society of equals? . . . One basic way to expand equality is by expanding the range of valued fields within a society . . . "The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains? That is what it is to be free." . . . The problem, she proposed, was that contemporary egalitarian thinkers had grown fixated on distribution: moving resources from lucky-seeming people to unlucky-seeming people, as if trying to spread the luck around . . . By categorizing people as lucky or unlucky, she argued, these egalitarians set up a moralizing hierarchy. . . . [We must] shift from distributive equality to what she called relational, or democratic, equality: meeting as equals . . . If one person’s supposed freedom results in someone else’s subjugation, that is not actually a free society in action. It’s hierarchy in disguise. To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. . . . People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies . . . . She saw value as something determined by the details of an individual’s history."

In Truthout, Anton Woronczuk interviewed British energy writer Simon Pirani this month in an article called "Until We Confront Capitalism, We Will Not Solve the Climate Crisis":
The story of fossil fuel consumption growth is a story of technologies used, misused and moulded by the corporations that control them; of capitalist expansion, particularly after the second world war; and of government complicity. Even today, most fossil fuels are used by technologies of the late 19th-century “second industrial revolution,” and their more-or-less direct successors: cars with internal combustion engines, power stations and electricity networks, urban built infrastructure, energy-intensive manufacturing, fertilizer-heavy industrial agriculture. The technologies of the so-called “third industrial revolution” – computers and communication networks that appeared from the 1980s – have not only not helped make the economy less fuel-intensive, they have made things worse. The internet now uses more electricity than India uses for everything – not because it could not function more efficiently, but because it has developed as a commercial rather than a collective network, loaded with commercial content. By contrast, networked technology’s tremendous potential to make urban energy systems more efficient – to make them integrated, using multiple decentralized renewable energy sources such as wind and solar – has hardly been tapped. Ideologies of “economic growth” and productivism have played a huge part in frustrating efforts to deal with global warming in the most effective way – by cutting fossil fuel consumption. Enthusiasm for geoengineering is the ultimate and most extreme manifestation of such ideologies. Carbon capture and storage will probably never work at a large scale. . . .
Focusing on rich-world hamburger eaters ignores the whole supply chain that produces such fuel-intensive, unhealthy products. Appealing to rich-world drivers to get the bus only makes sense as part of a challenge to the whole urban transport system they depend on, that favors cars. I try to minimize my own hamburger consumption and car use, but I don’t treat consumption as a moral issue. And it is not primarily an individual phenomenon: fuels are consumed by and through technological and economic systems. Second, working people in the rich world spend their lives fending off the effects of elites’ encroachments on their living standards. Under the present economic and political conditions, reducing consumption would often make their lives harder. It needn’t do, but that’s how things stand now.
A huge amount of political energy is expended to convince us that the international climate talks are dealing with the global warming problem. They simply are not. Since 1992 the annual level of greenhouse gases emissions from fossil fuel use has risen by more than half. That is a failure. If we don’t characterize the talks in that way, we cannot deal with the political consequences. The 2015 Paris agreement marked the final collapse of attempts to adopt binding emissions targets. . . . we need to assess progress soberly and not confuse hopes with reality.

I argued that not just a social-democratic spending program, but a much deeper-going shift to post-capitalist social relations, could provide the context for the fundamental changes in social, economic and technological systems that will be necessary to break the economy’s many-sided dependence on fossil fuels.

Finally, Truthdig's Chris Hedges, the most radical of this bunch, explains the problems further in "The Rule of the Uber-Rich Means Tyranny or Revolution"
"Corporate capitalism, which has destroyed our democracy, has given unchecked power to the uber-rich. And once we understand the pathologies of these oligarchic elites, it is easy to chart our future. The state apparatus the uber-rich controls now exclusively serves their interests. They are deaf to the cries of the dispossessed. They empower those institutions that keep us oppressed—the security and surveillance systems of domestic control, militarized police, Homeland Security and the military—and gut or degrade those institutions or programs that blunt social, economic and political inequality, among them public education, health care, welfare, Social Security, an equitable tax system, food stamps, public transportation and infrastructure, and the courts. The uber-rich extract greater and greater sums of money from those they steadily impoverish. And when citizens object or resist, they crush or kill them. . . . The dark pathologies of the uber-rich, lionized by mass culture and mass media, have become our own. We have ingested their poison. We have been taught by the uber-rich to celebrate the bad freedoms and denigrate the good ones. Look at any Trump rally. Watch any reality television show. Examine the state of our planet. We will repudiate these pathologies and organize to force the uber-rich from power or they will transform us into what they already consider us to be—the help."
He continues in "The 'Gig Economy' is the New Term for Serfdom" where he says,
"Corporate capitalism is establishing a neofeudal serfdom in numerous occupations, a condition in which there are no labor laws, no minimum wage, no benefits, no job security and no regulations. Desperate and impoverished workers, forced to endure 16-hour days, are viciously pitted against each other. . . . The reign of the all-powerful capitalist class has returned with a vengeance. The job conditions of working men and women, thrust backward, will not improve until they regain the militancy and rebuild the popular organizations that seized power from the capitalists. . . . The ruling capitalists will be as vicious as they were in the past. Nothing enrages the rich more than having to part with a fraction of their obscene wealth. Consumed by greed, rendered numb to human suffering by a life of hedonism and extravagance, devoid of empathy, incapable of self-criticism or self-sacrifice, surrounded by sycophants and leeches who cater to their wishes, appetites and demands, able to use their wealth to ignore the law and destroy critics and opponents, they are among the most repugnant of the human species."

And that doesn't even touch the problems he often discusses with slavery as a tacit part of the American prison system. Capitalism is all about a few people taking as much as they can from the masses. He advocates for civil disobedience in "The Coming Collapse":
"We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience, like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year. If we do not stand up we will enter a new dark age. . . . It [The Democratic Party] plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics. . . . They would rather implode the entire system than give up their positions of privilege. We must invest our energy in building parallel, popular institutions to protect ourselves and to pit power against power. These parallel institutions, including unions, community development organizations, local currencies, alternative political parties and food cooperatives, will have to be constructed town by town. The elites in a time of distress will retreat to their gated compounds and leave us to fend for ourselves."

So, we need to actively run workplaces democratically, recognize media indoctrination that makes us think we're in a democracy and the commodification of everyday experiences, and develop a sense of solidarity with one another. We have to redefine freedom of the whole to include freedom of each to live with basic rights upheld. We have to re-work where we put our technological energies and override the dominant ideology of growth in order to live sustainably with post-capital social relations. And we need to start now by building parallel institutions town by town.

But can we do any of that? Consider this, floating around social media today...

People suck. If we let them vote democratically in the workplace, what stops them from making inane decisions that harm everybody even worse than CEOs currently do??  I think all only works if the following premise is true: when people have what they need, and feel secure that it will continue, they will stop fighting to keep other people out. The words above shows a profound level of resourcefulness of people who care about an issue. If it's directed in right way, with media working onside with the people, and we can re-develop a sense of solidarity, then just maybe we can live a post-capitalist reality.

ETA this excellent little video that isn't about communism in the slightest:

And this:


The Mound of Sound said...

I stumbled across a site, Marie, that you're probably already familiar with, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, but I thought I'd send a link just in case. It does sound interesting. If only I had some grounding in philosophy.

Marie Snyder said...

I hadn't heard of the site - thanks for the link!