Superfluous Labor and the Siren Song of Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism

The thought occurred to me that I can literally accomplish a day’s worth of work in around 1/8th of a working day, but there are still dozens of workers toiling on the factory floor, all day, every day. At the end of the day, nothing that any of us do is necessary for the functioning of society. My working hours could be cut to 8 per week and my company probably wouldn’t even notice outside of random IT emergencies. But those factory workers couldn’t have their hours cut without hurting the company, because its profit comes exclusively from their labor. The whole point of reducing working hours is to hurt the capitalists.

That same division between office and factory labor repeats itself on the macro scale in global capitalism. The widget factories of global capitalist production, which are mostly located in the global south, provide most of its profits. To reduce working hours in the factories means building substantial automation, like Foxconn is doing in China. Reducing working hours at the headquarters, on the other hand, is a lot easier for capitalists: it usually takes the form of mass layoffs.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but the mass layoff is effectively a concentration of working hours in fewer workers. If a company has 20,000 office personnel all working ~8 hours per week in a 40 hour work week, then it’s effectively paying for 640,000 surplus hours per week. Of course capitalists want to eliminate that. The remaining 160,000 wage-hours of total “necessary” work could be done by 4,000 full-time employees at 100% productivity, so that company would announce it’s laying off 16,000 people. Of course, I put “necessary” in scare-quotes because, chances are, that company’s products are mostly superfluous to society.

But this is also where the tendency of the rate of profit to decline kicks in. As companies shed paid working hours in the aggregate, they are also shrinking the pool of “consumers” who can afford to buy their pointless products. Financialization of the economy allows capitalists to cover up this decline temporarily, by time-shifting the problem into the future. In normal parlance, we call that a “bubble.”

Since the capitalists are by and large a short-sighted lot, they now seem to think this crisis of profit can be averted by “expanding.” As they lose the ability to sell products in already-developed markets, they want to sell more in the places they make the products, which means that wages must rise in order for those workers to afford the shit they make. Raising wages, of course, causes an immediate decline in profit, and as I said, capitalists are notoriously short-sighted, preferring a long-term decline in profit and its resulting crisis to any short-term reductions that might temporarily stabilize and stagnate profits. Thus when wages are forced to rise, they turn back to automation, which allows them to reduce working hours in aggregate through mass layoffs. As their profits drop in the ensuing crisis, they go looking for the next “developing market” to try this cycle in.

Lenin said that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. He was right. In his 1916 publication Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin offered the following definition with 5 basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;

(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy;

(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;

(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and

(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

Even 101 years after this was published, it remains a good working definition of imperialism. What is worth clarifying is the term “capitalist power,” which Lenin used to refer to imperialist nation-states such as the US or Great Britain. The spread of fascism and its insidious spiritual successor, neoliberalism, has resulted in the merging of corporate power with the nation-state beyond even Mussolini’s wildest dreams. Trans-national corporations now dictate policies in every nation-state they touch through the magic of “free trade” agreements. When trade agreements do not suffice, they manipulate national armies to do their bidding, carrying out “regime change” to favor their chosen successors.

In other words, the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers is nearly complete, and the nation-state is nearly irrelevant to capital. The problem is, to channel Thatcher, sooner or later you run out of markets to develop. Space thus seems like the next logical place for capitalism to expand. However, it seems increasingly likely that space colonization will be fully automated from the start, which is a minor problem.

There must be consumers to sustain a market for consumer goods, and right now, the human population of beyond-LEO space is exactly zero. Musk may envision a bustling population of millions of humans on Mars by the 2040s, but the truth remains that in the harsh Martian environment most, if not all, labor will be conducted by robots.

Since robots are not labor but rather capital, they do not produce value directly according to Marx’s labor theory of value. The same could be said about slavery, and Marx, who wrote about the American Civil War as it was happening, noted this in his response to Ricardian economists in part III, chapter 21 of Theories of Surplus Value:

The transformation of necessaries into luxuries by means of foreign trade, as interpreted in the pamphlet, is important in itself […] because it determines the whole social pattern of backward nations—for example, the slave-holding states in the United States of North America […] which are associated with a world market based on capitalist production. No matter how large the surplus product they extract from the surplus labour of their slaves in the simple form of cotton or corn, they can adhere to this simple, undifferentiated labour because foreign trade enables them [to convert] these simple products into any kind of use-value.

In other words, the value produced by labor which is considered capital – whether human or robot – is accumulated exclusively by the capitalist class in the form of surplus commodities, which must be exchanged with other non-slaveholding capitalists in order to realize their use-values. Therefore, the exploration and colonization of space is little more than a repeat of the colonization of the Americas, substituting automation for slavery and freed from any ethical dilemmas posed by indigenous peoples (at least until we stumble across another intelligent species, which I may only hope capitalists never do for the sake of every living creature in the universe.)

It is, of course, entirely conceivable that well-meaning “socialist” idealists will strive to create “egalitarian” colonies in space where all colonists share the value produced by the robots, with or without the need for exports of surplus commodities for profit. There are several problems that remain in this case.

First, as long as capitalism remains the dominant system here on Earth, the colony must export enough goods of sufficient use value to Earth (or its vicinity) to be able to import the specialized supplies they need until such time as they become fully self-sufficient. Failing that, the colony will need to be supported via a wealthy benefactor like the United States or China, as even the most wealthy of the billionaires do not possess enough surplus capital to sustain an entire colony for very long. Both of these solutions require the stolen surplus value of billions of hungry, tired workers here on Earth.

The second problem is the expectation for colonists to pay their own way. In Musk’s vision for an Interplanetary Transportation System, a one-way ticket to Mars should cost around $200,000 in today’s dollars, roughly around the price of a small house in most American cities. He contends this will make it affordable for “average” Americans, ignoring the fact that even those middle class Americans who do “own” their houses are saddled with massive amounts of mortgage debt. The ITS is a space Uber for well-off capitalists.

If we assume the capitalists are aware of these problems, the question then becomes why they continue to pursue it. I believe the related survivalist craze offers an answer: while they are blinded to the fact that capitalism itself creates crises, they are not blind to the historical consequences of these crises. Much as the bourgeoisie slaveholders of the antebellum South saw themselves as the kings of a colonial empire, today’s capitalists see the same promise in space. Why live on Earth where they must barely tolerate smelly plebeians when the promise of a new life awaits them in the off-world colonies?

Mars, then, offers the promise of fully automated luxury capitalism, a world to be reshaped as they see fit in order to escape the misery of Earth’s congestion without having to re-engineer entire cities (although they’re trying to do that in the meantime, as usual.) Like the failed libertarian colony of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, they see its potential as a relief valve where they can take their stolen wealth and, presumably, live out their remaining days under the care of deliberately servitude artificial intelligences while Earth burns.

Maybe that explains Elon’s sudden push for “safe” artificial intelligences. It certainly wouldn’t do to settle down on a Martian plantation if the newly aware robots decide to follow the example of the Haiti slave revolt and overthrow their capitalist masters.

Apocalypse Now

Since time immemorial, those in power have feared the destruction of their order, and once removed from power, they and their sympathizers always seek to bring about its return. This power – and the fear surrounding it – formed the basis of the definitions of political left and right we use today, as the Right represented those who sought the return of the French monarchy, the Ancien Régime, and on the Left, the Republicans who abolished it.

It is not surprising, then, that as generations pass and society goes through phases of upheaval and development, the ruling classes try to instill fear of societal collapse within the masses. In the United States, the political right (represented by both major parties) first drummed up fear of widespread anarchy at the turn of the 20th century, and later shaped it into fear of nuclear war with Soviet Russia. Today, the Democrats have returned to McCarthyism to accuse the ruling Republican party of conspiring with Russia, while the predominantly Republican police and ex-military are turning into the core of a popular fascist front (under the guise of “Blue Lives Matter”) much as they did during the abortive German revolution of 1918-1919.

This fear serves two purposes. First, it divides the working classes along various lines, echoing the fear of black people that the white capitalist class has used to prevent working class solidarity throughout most of US history.  Today, that fear has been supplemented by islamophobia and transphobia among other fears. Second, it allows the capitalists to profit off of each other: witness the rapid growth in disaster preparedness among the super-rich.

The term that is most used to describe the situation these reactionaries are afraid of is apocalypse. From Wikipedia:

An apocalypse (Ancient Greek: ἀποκάλυψις apokálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω, literally meaning “an uncovering”) is a disclosure of knowledge or revelation.

Note how the popular understanding of the term – most notably appearing in the post-apocalyptic film genre – paints the apocalypse as a universally bad event. Most of the popular culture since the Cold War has focused on nuclear war as the trigger of societal collapse. Some stories explore a gradual descent of society into fascism or authoritarianism. But very few stories – Star Trek and the Culture series by Iain M. Banks excepted – explore the idea of post-class societies, even though that certainly qualifies as a dramatic revelation.

Let us embrace the apocalypse, then. Let us rise up and uncover the lies of the capitalists; let us disclose this knowledge to the world. Only then can we build the class consciousness needed to bring our destructive, unequal, and exploitative society to its rightful end, as Georg Lukacs wrote in 1920:

The proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself, by creating the classless society through the successful conclusion of its own class struggle. The struggle for this society, in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is merely a phase, is not just a battle waged against an external enemy, the bourgeoisie. It is equally the struggle of the proletariat against itself, against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness. The proletariat will only have won the real victory when it has overcome these effects within itself.

 

Political Parties in America

Adapted from V.I. Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet, “Political Parties in Russia and the Tasks of the Proletariat.

1) WHAT ARE THE CHIEF POLITICAL PARTY GROUPINGS IN AMERICA?

  1. The Grand Old Party (Republicans) and kindred groups like the Libertarian Party.

  2. The Democratic Party (Democrats) and kindred groups like the Green Party, Working Families’ Party, and Democratic Socialists of America.

2) WHAT CLASSES DO THESE PARTIES REPRESENT? WHAT CLASS STANDPOINT DO THEY EXPRESS?

  1. The most reactionary sections of the capitalist bourgeoisie, who wish to advance the privatization of the commons and break concentrated state power into corporate fiefdoms.

  2. The bourgeoisie as a whole, that is, the capitalist class, who seek to maintain state power in order to preserve the status quo.

3) WHAT IS THEIR ATTITUDE TOWARDS SOCIALISM?

  1. Decidedly hostile, since they seek to use the state only for increasing the profits of the capitalist landowners. Uses nationalist rhetoric to redirect the anger of the working class against itself.

  2. Decidedly hostile in action, since it threatens the profits of the capitalists and landowners. Uses the language of socialism to steer the working class away from revolutionary awareness and toward ineffective electoral politics.

Why I’m Not Celebrating Constitution Day

One of the most enduring American peculiarities is the reverence that our historical education places upon the constitution and the men who wrote it. We capitalize the Constitution to signify its importance in our society, but hardly pause to think about how it came about beyond why the 1st and 2nd amendments are significant. We have lionized the “Founding Fathers,” elevating them to a plane above us mere mortals where they undoubtedly look down upon us in bemusement. Criticism of them, particularly from the left, is downright verboten: how dare some plebeian question their motives?

At the end of the day, however, they were only men, with all of the flaws and vices that entails. Furthermore, they were only men, a reflection of the patriarchal Anglo society that had been transplanted here. Women had no input in the drafting of the documents that organized our modern society. We may take equality between the sexes for granted today, evidence be damned, but we must remember that women’s suffrage wasn’t until 1920. (We still haven’t passed an Equal Rights Amendment, partly because of a disagreement between bourgeois and working class feminists over how to define equal rights, but mostly because of opposition from people invested in a conservative patriarchy like Phyllis Schlafly.)

Finally, the founding fathers were only white, Anglo men who hailed predominantly from the upper layers of early American society. Many-most?-of them were slaveholders. With some exceptions, their legacy hangs almost entirely on the American Revolution. Take, for instance, the eponymous John Hanson, one of the early Presidents of the Continental Congress. Born to the wealthy owners of a 1,000 acre Maryland plantation, he entered public service in 1750 and pursued a rather unremarkable, mostly self-serving career until hostilities broke out in 1774, at which point he became a champion of the patriot cause. Even so, disagreement exists among historians of his actual importance to the revolution. The state of Maryland has even debated replacing his statue with one of Harriet Tubman, whose work toward ending slavery far outweighs that of a rather boring rich white slaveholder who served a mostly ceremonial one-year term as President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.

Viewed from this angle, the American Revolution suddenly looks a lot less like a people’s revolt against the tyranny of an old empire, and a lot more like corporate attempts at tax evasion if legal battles were fought with guns instead of lawyers. Considering this, is it any surprise that free-market ideologues and self-styled “sovereign citizens” now use this as justification for their means? Curiously, however, these same ideologues gloss over the deplorable slavery that their white heroes perpetuated as Robin L. Einhorn explains in her book American Taxation, American Slavery. These “heroes” were in fact masters of Newspeak, well over a hundred years before the birth of George Orwell:

Expansions of slavery became expansions of “liberty,” constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of “equal rights,” and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the “common man.”

Therefore, I will celebrate the Constitution at such a time as we have a Constitution worth celebrating:

A Constitution that does not conceal slavery in an amendment purportedly enacted to abolish it.

A Constitution that guarantees equal rights for all.

A Constitution that includes a truly representative voting system, not one tilted toward wealthy landholders.

Ultimately, we will never have such a Constitution until we address the fundamental inequalities of our class-based society. This is not to say that I advocate for the total abolishment of all wealth, as such utopian ideals are likely to remain highly unrealistic for the foreseeable future. However, it seems clear that as long as our society is controlled by those who possess most of the wealth, racism and other forms of discrimination will be used to perpetuate class divisions to the benefit of the wealthy.

In future pieces, I will attempt to explore the foundational changes that might conceivably bring about a more just and equitable society.

California Voter Turnout: 2008 vs 2016

When the Associated Press calls a hotly contested race just one day before the last Super Tuesday primaries of 2016 based entirely on last-minute polling of superdelegates, all in an apparent attempt to scoop the competition, and  major stories about voting irregularities are published in the LA Times, at some point you have to stop and ask yourself if this is business as usual, or something deeper.

Since it would be take a very long time to analyze every county’s turnout in the 2016 election, I’ll just use my home county of San Bernardino as a test case. Final results are not due until July 8, 2016, so I will check back and update this piece as needed.

Here are the numbers. Sources:

Total Registered/Voted Percent
2008 2016 % change 2008 2016 point change
Registered Voters 723661 784130 108.36%
Precinct Turnout 229094 108609 47.41% 31.66% 13.85% -17.81%
Vote by Mail Turnout 147520 133884 90.76% 20.39% 17.07% -3.32%
Total Turnout 376614 242493 64.39% 52.04% 30.93% -21.11%
Registered Democratic 273804 303592 110.88%
Precinct Turnout 108386 55061 50.80% 39.59% 18.14% -21.45%
Vote by Mail Turnout 60845 58983 96.94% 22.22% 19.43% -2.79%
Total Turnout 169231 114044 67.39% 61.81% 37.56% -24.25%
Registered Nonpartisan 124605 178352 143.13%
Precinct Turnout 11964 2756 23.04% 9.60% 1.55% -8.05%
Vote by Mail Turnout 12514 10919 87.25% 10.04% 6.12% -3.92%
Total Turnout 24478 13675 55.87% 19.64% 7.67% -11.97%
Nonpartisan Democratic (Crossover)
Precinct Turnout 14130 10429 73.81% 11.34% 5.85% -5.49%
Vote by Mail Turnout 709 3732 526.38% 0.57% 2.09% 1.52%
Total Turnout 14839 14161 95.43% 11.91% 7.94% -3.97%
Combined Nonpartisan Turnout  39317  27386  70.80%  31.55% 15.61% -15.95%
  •  The first takeaway from this data is that despite the registered Democratic voter base increasing 110% over 2008, overall turnout on June 7 was only 50% of the 2008 turnout, while vote by mail turnout only decreased slightly at 96%.
  • Second, when comparing the numbers between NP-Democratic ballots and NPP ballots, an interesting picture forms. In 2008, total NPP ballots exceeded NP-Democratic ballots by 10,000 votes, but in 2016 the numbers were almost even. Of those, the share of vote-by-mail and precinct votes are like mirror images between NPP and NP-Dem: 10,429 in-person NP-Dem ballots, versus 2,756 NPP ballots; and 3,732 mail-in NP-Dem ballots, versus 10,919 NPP ballots.

This discrepancy between the precinct turnout and vote-by-mail turnout seems like a clear indication that the AP’s premature June 6 call suppressed turnout as many Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters chose to stay home rather than participate.

Finally, we know that the Bernie Sanders campaign has relied heavily on independent voters. Independent registration increased 143% from 2008 levels, and the share of independent voters requesting Democratic ballots went from 37% of participating voters in 2008 to 50% in 2016. Despite this, the total independent turnout rate fell by half, from 31.5% in 2008 to 15.6%.

San Bernardino County still estimates that approximately 95,000 ballots are outstanding and will update the totals on June 9, with further updates to follow.