Abolishing wage labor and capitalism itself sounds like a simple solution to exploitation and imperialism, but much like the sudden fridge horror one might be faced with a few hours after watching an innocent children’s cartoon, there are some scary implications that arise upon further thought.
First is the realization that radical changes in the way we live are required, because the bulk of modern society is based on meaningless and unnecessary make-work.
In the past, Keynesian efforts to achieve full employment in both the United States and Britain drew criticism for making up useless work, although a look at the history of the Works Progress Administration will show that it resulted in major modernization of water and sewer infrastructure across the country. What self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders overlook when they talk about infrastructure spending is that all the labor-intensive, back-breaking work WPA did nearly a hundred years ago is now accomplished with the help of heavy equipment, lowering the total number of workers required to do the same job.
Automation, however, has not freed us from make-work. In fact, it has accelerated the trend. In France, one solution to unemployment has been the creation of fake jobs. Their original purpose was to give students and unemployed workers switching careers the experience needed to re-enter the workforce, but as the European economic crisis worsened, policymakers adapted the system to provide long-term jobs for the masses of unemployed.
If you think Potemkin companies are just a peculiar European quirk, however, think again. Capitalism is commonly defined as the private control of trade and industry for profit. There is no law that states that goods produced by private capital must serve a useful purpose; the only principle in capitalism is that profit must be generated for the capitalists. This has led to the rise of entire industries built around the selling of goods and services that are not necessary (let alone beneficial) to human existence.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. In fact, we could argue this was a driving force behind the creation of capitalism. The mercantile traders of early colonialism created a market for tobacco in Europe once they realized its addictive properties. Supply naturally followed demand once people realized there was money to be made growing tobacco in the Americas. Nobody needed it. The growth of sugar cane plantations was the same: exploiting a quirk of evolutionary biology for profit.
Capitalism, in other words, is a giant house of cards built on fundamentally wrong assumptions about human nature. Take the usual liberal criticism of rioters. “If only they would stop smashing shit and make their voices heard at the ballot box.” This attitude is partly based on the incorrect assumption that the only viable outlet for expressing speech is at the ballot box. That’s wrong, but for reasons that have been discussed in depth elsewhere. Instead, I will argue the main reason for that liberal attitude is because riots threaten to expose the sham that is the capitalist economy.
In what way does Starbucks or McDonalds provide a service necessary for the existence of human life? Will society collapse without overpriced lattes and mediocre sandwiches provided 24/7? Even setting aside questions of basic utility, would society be in any way lessened by the elimination of overpriced lattes & sandwiches?
Fast food chains are merely the tip of the capitalist iceberg: they are its most visible elements of excess. Moving down the ladder, we have foodservice suppliers. Many of these companies exist solely because of chains like McDonalds. Another step down and we have processors, who take farm output and turn it into various packaged forms for food service and distribution. Demand for these packaged foods is created based on marketing at the top levels, whether it’s individually wrapped oranges at Whole Foods, or bags of precut lettuce and grated cheese destined to be turned into Doritos Loco Tacos at Taco Bell. In other words, manufactured demand for fast food creates demand for food services.
Then you have the farms, which today are mostly owned by agricultural conglomerates rather than family farmers. Some of them are run by co-ops – it doesn’t matter. They all exist in a capitalist market and all respond to price stimuli. Outside of a few hyperlocal farms, farmers are isolated and insulated by the market and the state respectively against people’s needs. The farmer doesn’t have to care about the state of nutrition in the nearby community. They grow product and sell to the market based entirely on what will net them the most profit. When there are miscalculations, there is an expectation that the state will intervene in order to preserve their profits, as was done under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 when FDR ordered crops to be bought up and destroyed.
That’s just one branch of this perverse tree we call capitalism, with so many interlinked branches that it resembles a bramble thicket. The farmer, for instance, relies on industrial products like tractors and harvesters to reduce the labor needed to grow and harvest. Food processing requires even more machinery to clean, sort, manipulate, and package the food. Distribution requires load handling equipment, warehouses, and fleets of trucks. Of course McDonalds wouldn’t even be as popular as it is without the personal automobile and the drive-through that it spawned. None of these things are actually necessary to have a productive or even modern society. In fact, our definition of modern is skewed.
Take Cuba, for instance, where the US embargo resulted in a shortage of automobiles and agricultural equipment. We don’t need to buy new cars every 3.5 years – the same investment could be instead put into maintenance of the existing vehicle. This isn’t the best thing from an efficiency standpoint, but debating the efficiency of individual cars overlooks the fact that compared to other forms of transportation, personal cars are extremely inefficient. Anyway, most of Cuba’s crops are grown solely for domestic production. Because of the lack of machinery, they’re also more labor intensive. According to the World Food Program, this has resulted in Cuba needing to import around 84% of its food. This estimate, however, is based strictly on the Cuban rationing system, and more scientific estimates place net food imports around 16% of total consumption, ironically the inverse of the WFP’s figure.
In other words, Cuba is largely self-sufficient, if a bit less “efficient” than capitalist countries, despite the lack of infrastructure. Furthermore, Cuba’s agricultural exports are cash crops – luxury goods like sugar and tobacco. These are goods that would have little value if not for the markets that were created by early capitalists. We can therefore see, by contrasting Cuba with the US, the excesses inherent in capitalism that drive the expanding use of resources.
Moving further from food, the industrial sector requires factories and raw materials, which in turn requires energy and mining. The major factor that sets capitalism apart from earlier forms like mercantilism and feudalism is of course energy. Exploiting the energy found in fossil fuels like coal and oil was what allowed this massive interlinked industrial structure to develop in the first place; today, we call it the Industrial Revolution. We talk about automation and the elimination of human labor, but it is energy that makes automation possible in the first place. Karl Marx described this steady march of capitalist automation in his 1847 work Wage Labour and Capital:
No matter how powerful the means of production which a capitalist may bring into the field, competition will make their adoption general; and from the moment that they have been generally adopted, the sole result of the greater productiveness of his capital will be that he must furnish at the same price, 10, 20, 100 times as much as before. But since he must find a market for, perhaps, 1,000 times as much, in order to outweigh the lower selling price by the greater quantity of the sale; since now a more extensive sale is necessary not only to gain a greater profit, but also in order to replace the cost of production (the instrument of production itself grows always more costly, as we have seen), and since this more extensive sale has become a question of life and death not only for him, but also for his rivals, the old struggle must begin again, and it is all the more violent the more powerful the means of production already invented are. The division of labour and the application of machinery will therefore take a fresh start, and upon an even greater scale.
He then concludes by saying:
Finally, in the same measure in which the capitalists are compelled, by the movement described above, to exploit the already existing gigantic means of production on an ever-increasing scale, and for this purpose to set in motion all the mainsprings of credit, in the same measure do they increase the industrial earthquakes, in the midst of which the commercial world can preserve itself only by sacrificing a portion of its wealth, its products, and even its forces of production, to the gods of the lower world – in short, the crises increase. They become more frequent and more violent, if for no other reason, than for this alone, that in the same measure in which the mass of products grows, and therefore the needs for extensive markets, in the same measure does the world market shrink ever more, and ever fewer markets remain to be exploited, since every previous crisis has subjected to the commerce of the world a hitherto unconquered or but superficially exploited market.
Which brings me back to liberal critiques of Marxism. Have you ever noticed how it always hinges on bourgeoisie ideas of democracy? Cuba, despite being a thriving democracy, is labeled a dictatorship. The United States, which was recently downgraded to a “flawed democracy,” still considers itself the leader of the democratic world and claims that its CIA-led actions to install dictators in democratic, socialist countries are for the freedom of their people.
Liberals are interested in protecting the status quo at any cost. To be liberal is to be invested in capital, or desirous of it. Liberalism professes a desire for equality while simultaneously supporting the conditions that prevent equality. In this way, conservatives are more honest than liberals. They make no claims of equality, professing only their desire for riches. Both will stand fast against any attempt to destroy the capital which they so jealously hoard. This is key to understanding fascism.
Police are the first line of defense for these fascists. They exist to protect “order”, that is, the system of property and slavery. The history of policing and the reasons for abolishing it are well described in this pamphlet from A World Without Police. Knowing of the link between police and fascists leads to the realization that fascists will not let us abolish the police. For if the police are abolished, who then will protect the fascists from the oppressed masses? Historically, that job falls to the military. The only problem for fascists is that the military leadership sometimes gets ideas of its own. But this doesn’t mean that the military is an ally of the working classes. They’re usually just interested in switching seats at the top, a pattern seen in military dictatorships all over the world.
Now that we’ve covered the structure of capitalism and fascism, how does the abolition of wage labor affect it?
Oddly enough, the ultimate goal of capitalists is the same as that of communists: the abolition of wage labor. Capitalists want to replace wage slaves (the replacement for chattel slaves) with robotic slaves, and they’re already well underway. Andrew Puzder, the nominee for Secretary of Labor and CEO of CKE Restaurants Inc. had the following to say about robots:
They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.
Of course, the capitalists never talk about what will happen to the unemployed masses once they finish this massive undertaking. But proponents of Universal Basic Income seem to have the ready-made answer: taxing the capitalists for the minimum needed for survival, or when taxes prove unpopular with the capitalists, they’ll just have the fascist state print the currency needed. Who’s going to question it? As long as the masses have the valueless currency they need to buy the output of the capitalists, the system will continue.
“But wait,” somebody might say, “printing currency will lead to hyperinflation.” Well, let’s look at the “accepted” causes, shall we?
The International Accounting Standards Board has issued guidance on accounting rules in a hyperinflationary environment. It does not establish an absolute rule on when hyperinflation arises. Instead, it lists factors that indicate the existence of hyperinflation:
- The general population prefers to keep its wealth in non-monetary assets or in a relatively stable foreign currency. Amounts of local currency held are immediately invested to maintain purchasing power
- The general population regards monetary amounts not in terms of the local currency but in terms of a relatively stable foreign currency. Prices may be quoted in that currency;
- Sales and purchases on credit take place at prices that compensate for the expected loss of purchasing power during the credit period, even if the period is short;
- Interest rates, wages, and prices are linked to a price index; and
- The cumulative inflation rate over three years approaches, or exceeds, 100%.
- Let’s look at the first condition: non-monetary assets. This has been impossible since the ’70s as explained here.
- There is also no such thing as a relatively stable foreign currency since global currencies are all fiat currencies now. What are Americans going to start circulating instead of dollars? The pound or the Euro? The renminbi? How are they going to get it?
- Under a universal basic income, everyone gets the same amount of subsidy and thus purchasing power (outside the capitalist class) is theoretically equal. I am, of course, presupposing the introduction of basic income is closely timed with the capitalist abolition of wage labor by automation.
- The fourth point, wages linked to a price index, is obviously made spurious by fact of automation.
- The last point about sustained inflation has been meaningless since the end of the gold standard. The rate of inflation will be whatever the state assumes is necessary, and it has, in fact, remained relatively static for the past several years.
Credit markets as we know them would disappear under universal automation and basic income. With universal subsistence set at or slightly above the property line as has been proposed, buying housing would become almost unheard-of among those who did not already own property. This in turn would drive further inequality between the rentier capitalists and the masses. Instead, I would expect the already massive payday lending and appliance/furniture rental sectors to take advantage of the guaranteed payments of a basic income to further expand; one of the trends in software has been a shift from large, expensive enterprise systems to on-demand Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).
We may therefore infer that the end result of a fully automated economy with a Universal Basic Income is “Economy-as-a-Service,” where capitalists own all durable goods and the masses rent from them.
UBI purists may point out that full automation is still nowhere near being reality, but even if some amounts of labor are required, for instance to maintain the machines, why should we assume it will require highly paid labor? Chattel slavery has existed in one form or another since the creation of agriculture as I argued in my previous post. Slavery still exists in the United States in the form of prison labor, and I see no reason why a society with UBI would suddenly stop imprisoning people for bullshit legal violations.
Another argument for basic income claims it is merely a necessary step toward socialism, but I maintain that any step that entrenches capitalism is a step in the wrong direction. As proletarians, we should be opposed to any half-measures that prolong the existence of capital. At the same time, we are not reactionary. Fighting for a return to primitive communism and subsistence farming seems counterintuitive, yet that is exactly what radical environmentalists like Naomi Klein would have you believe is necessary to stop capitalism.
Given the late stage of capitalism we live in, it has never been more critical to build revolutionary awareness in the working class. The clock is ticking, and we’re almost powerless as it is between debt and the power of the fascist state.
Victory in the
#FightFor15 only puts us one step forward on the wage treadmill, while capitalist-driven automation marches alongside us. The failure of the US labor movement can be chalked up to the fact that it was subverted by bourgeoisie interests and neutered by the state. This chart reflects the declining power of the labor movement, which is no accident. The call for higher wages has always played into the hands of the capitalists. The Vancouver branch of the IWW had a eureka moment back in 1984, but even they stopped short of the mark. They were unable to envision the complete destruction of the capitalist structure.
It is ironically the capitalists who are most invested in destroying the wage labor system as it currently exists. I think the reason they haven’t fully warmed up to UBI, even though it is necessary for preserving capitalism, is because of free time. Right now, debt is the lever by which they ensure we work as much as possible, thereby minimizing free time. Free time is the most dangerous thing to a capitalist: it is time in which they cannot control the working class. Debt keeps us ever anxious, afraid of losing not only possessions but necessities. The threat of homelessness always hangs over us. Once capitalists figure out a way to reconcile UBI with control over our free time, rest assured they will immediately adopt it. This capitalist fear of free time was most evident in their response to
#J20, wondering why the protesters “weren’t working.”
The biggest advocates of
#basicincome claim that people will still find work to do. The problem is, such work wouldn’t be controlled. It also rests on the fundamental assumption that jobs will still exist for those who want them. Again: the capitalists hate jobs as much as we do. We are messy, inefficient, counterproductive gears messing up their perfect machine. Being a sociopath is almost a prerequisite to becoming wealthy. The rich hate us, which leads to an uncomfortable realization: we are disposable to the rich. They’re not stupid, either. They can see this crisis coming as well as we can.
In other words, there are three possible end-cases for capitalism.
- Automation and welfare/UBI are combined to form a dystopic nightmare where free time is controlled via methods like drugs and virtual reality to prevent uprising.
- They bring about the apocalypse, trusting in their preparations to survive & rebuild a tiny, technocratic elite society.
- A proletarian revolution occurs, abolishing all fascist states and ushering in a new age of global socialism.
But the capitalists are smart, and have taken steps to ensure that the conditions of the Bolshevik Revolution don’t take place again. Therefore, the only path I can see to making sure we reach #3 is by subverting their attempts to reach #1 or #2. In other words, advocating for basic income is little better than outright collaborating with them. The same goes for slavish adherence to the lesser-evilism of the Democratic Party and bourgeoisie electoral politics. I don’t know how many times revolutionaries can say it, but it bears repeating:
WE CANNOT CHANGE THE SYSTEM FROM WITHIN.
Abolishing capitalism doesn’t just mean abolishing wage labor. It means the abolition of class, which requires rethinking our entire society. If anyone wants to argue that communists are too class-focused, they’re right. We focus on class because we wish to abolish it. Along the way, we can’t lose track of identity and historical oppression. If we have the opportunity to right past wrongs, we should. We must examine past attempts at achieving socialism, identify their strengths, and learn from their weaknesses.
Only by doing this can we build a better society.