By Stephanie McMillan
Jul 23, 2015
Every day we’re being dragged deeper into the capitalist nightmare. While workers are the only ones directly exploited by capital, many others such as the petite bourgeoisie (the “middle” classes) are also subject to its terrible effects: economic crisis, wars of conquest, oppression, poverty, police-state terror, global warming, suicidal thoughts, Febreeze ads and all the rest.
Academics, content-providers and the staffs of nonprofits are among those sounding the alarm ever more vehemently, seeking to soften the pain of the accelerating horror. But because these people don’t directly face capital in the workplace (as workers do in the process of production), they can’t lay hands upon it to combat capitalism directly. So instead they employ their professional skills (corresponding to their economic role as circulators of capital) to solve the problem—they market and sell new ideas to re-design, re-engineer, re-boot the system.
First they offer reassuring-sounding it-won’t-be-that-bad schemes like “cradle to cradle,” “conscious capitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “green capitalism.” But these are quickly revealed to be the same old crap in prettier packaging.
Then they decry capitalism’s “excesses” by defining the problem not a capitalism itself, but as errors within an otherwise acceptable economic system. They add qualifiers: crony capitalism, disaster capitalism, corporate capitalism, blah blah blah. They build stellar careers as public intellectuals by offering the comforting thought that if we could simply eliminate its worst elements, the system might yet be saved. But this formula sounds increasingly hollow, as people figure out that the worst aspects of capitalism aren’t a mistake. They’re inherent to it.
Faced with looming demise as global warming makes itself felt, increasing numbers of progressives and leftists are acknowledging that capitalism itself is the problem. But are those of the petite bourgeoisie able to point the way out of the madness?
Let’s see what remedies many of them point to: “collaborative commons,” “workplace democracy,” “workers’ co-ops,” “mutual aid,” the “sharing economy.” These sound good, and indeed some of them may be positive and necessary steps toward a non-capitalist mode of production. But they are just that—steps—and it’s a mistake to confuse them with the path as a whole. Unless the framework of capitalism is broken entirely, they circle back to the beginning every time. Capitalism is not damaged simply because we engage in activity that is cooperative, non-hierarchical, collaborative or “socialistic.” It can and often does assimilate this activity, monetize it to generate new revenue streams. At the same time it helps manage and metabolize our discontent.
Now here comes Paul Mason. In a Guardian article anticipating his new book “Postcapitalism,” he spreads the good news that we have already entered the post-capitalist era, “without us noticing.”
But hold off on the victory party, comrades. If we were beyond capitalism, we would have noticed. I don’t know about you, but I imagine that a post-capitalist world would feel a little less like the same old frenzied forced march on the treadmill of anxiety, alienation, and failure to make ends meet.
He offers as evidence the claim that we’ve “loosened the relationship between work and wages.” This is pretty clever. He knows that people who envision a future beyond capitalism—socialists, communists, anarchists—understand that abolishing the wage system is the key to emancipating humanity from capitalism. But only a fool (or a well-paid content provider) could possibly confuse “abolishing the wage system” with “wages dwindling to nothing.” All that’s happening is that capitalists are taking more and we’re getting less. Far from capitalism being no more, capitalism is doing better than ever, at our expense.
Being ultra-underpaid is not a positive step toward a bright new economy—it sucks! Garment workers in Haiti paid 225 gourdes a day ($4.01 at the current exchange rate) understand this. Prisoners in Alabama paid 23 cents an hour understand this. It certainly must begin to gnaw on the minds of interns, as well as WWOOFers (working on farms in exchange for room and board, then turned loose to starve during the winters), that unpaid work doesn’t lead to “dismantling capitalism” but rather “testing out another form of wage-free capitalist accumulation.”
The “sharing economy” is another huge restructuring of the employer/employee relationship that benefits investors at the expense of the masses. Our workdays are being stretched into a series of endless tasks, cobbled together out of freelancing and side hustles, with barely any compensation to speak of. Yet they tell us this is somehow liberatory, that we’re participating in some glorious manifestation of the commons because we have to rent out our bedrooms, drive strangers around in our cars, hawk ourselves with “self-branding,” sell our possessions on eBay for a few bucks, and crowdfund our creative work, while millions in fees are collected by … someone. Someone else. Someone not us. Someone not us who lives in a mansion.
This is not post-capitalism. It is humiliating and disgusting. It is capitalism in full effect.
It is a rapacious capitalism so preoccupied with managing its own structural crisis that it really doesn’t give a fuck about us (except insofar as it needs to pacify us). Financialization is an adaptation born of the current, Marxist-anticipated crisis of overproduction, that is pushing the world economy deeper into a hole. This shift doesn’t mean that “information” has become the basis of the economy even if it does greatly speed circulation; in fact material surplus value still underpins the whole messy contraption. And material surplus value can only be produced by exploiting workers in the production of commodities. This is the only source of new value for an economy.
For example, when real estate becomes a speculative vehicle, massive bubbles develop, as we’ve seen in recent years. The money artificially inflates as it circulates, seemingly created out of thin air (as “information,” Mason might say). It may look like pixels, but it still needs to be attached to actual physical commodities. Thus we witness China’s insanity of constructing 12-24 “ghost cities” a year—mile after mile of condos and houses and malls with no people in them. In the US we have the lunacy of five empty houses for every homeless person. The string of the money-balloon might stretch so far that it’s hard to see what it’s tied to, but finance capital (information) must, finally, be tethered to industrial capital (things), or it disappears into the sky and pops.
Mason argues, post-modernistically, that because “information wants to be free,” the concept of value has become meaningless. Artists and musicians are expected to cope with that by throwing ourselves on the mercy of Kickstarter. Former journalists are trying to catch the falling knife by pumping out listicles at $20 a pop. The tendency of the price of information to fall is empirically self-evident. At the same time, though, food and rent become more costly.
It’s obvious to anyone who pays attention that the falling prices of an infinitely-replicable immaterial service does not, by any means, translate to the world of physical commodities. Some things can’t be replicated in pixels or even by a 3-D printer. Clothing, food, housing, fuel and computers can only be replicated by employing the labor power of exploited workers. Those things are not losing value.
Exploitation in the process of production is still at the heart of the global economy. And as long as the value produced by workers is being appropriated and accumulated by capitalists, then we are still in capitalism.
Only a self-serving Silicon Valley dreamer or a severely deluded business journalist can argue, with a straight face, that the falling price of ebooks translates into everyone on the planet being able to have plenty of free food. Perhaps Paul Mason ought to do a little experiment on himself: stay in a room with unlimited information. When he gets hungry, he can eat it.
He asserts that in today’s economy there is a reduced need for work. This statement is a tremendous insult to the workers in Bangladesh who sewed his shirt, the workers in China who assembled his phone, the workers in Mexico who picked the strawberries for his breakfast, the millions of workers all over the world who produce everything else he so thoughtlessly uses.
This is what happens when the petite bourgeoisie, rather than the working class, tries to take charge of the future. Most don’t know what productive work is, and often don’t want to do any. So deep down, they are reformists (even if they sound radical) and don’t really want to eliminate capitalism completely, but rather to mitigate its worst effects. Because their hearts aren’t fully committed, they want an easy way out. They seek administrative measures and decrees like establishing “democracy in the workplace” and “guaranteed income.” They hope they can wait for the economy to evolve to some improved state through “full automation” and “open source.
The bad news is that today we are far, far, far, far, far from anything like “post-capitalism.” The fact that capitalists are able to impose low pay on us is a sign of their strength and our own current weakness. So too is the fact that hucksters of stupid ideas are able to get such a wide hearing. To get beyond capitalism, we cannot wait or hope or engineer an upgrade. There is no easy way out. We need to emancipate ourselves from it through struggle; we need to destroy it.
The good news is that it is possible to destroy it. It is the producers of material value—the working class—who are in a position to lead all of us out of capitalism. Their hands are on the means of production—factories and land and infrastructure. By taking it out of the hands of capitalists, they free it so it can be used by all to meet the needs of all, for a real common good.
The proliferation of these fake anti-capitalist schemes should serve as a wake-up call—a loud and clear sign that we need to get our shit together, to organize and build a real mass movement led by the working class against capitalism. We need to become a strong social force, so we can fight our exploiters and win.
Stephanie McMillan's daily comic strip "Minimum Security" is syndicated online at Universal Uclick’s gocomics.com. She also draws and self-syndicates a weekly editorial cartoon, "Code Green." Her website is minimumsecurity.net.