I recently had a chance to read a post by Michael Roberts on the idea that the increasing automation of manufacturing (or at least heavy manufacturing) would not lead to a leisure society as depicted by Keynes, or perhaps to some degree by the Zeitgeist movement. The post was excellent but I had some thoughts on it I wanted to add.
I agree that a post-industrial society out of capitalism that will bring us minimal work and much leisure time is a fantasy. The reason I say that is because they’re claiming it will come from capitalism itself. This is all wrong. As we can see this is not happening, Keyes was absolutely incorrect in his assumption that “non-industrial society would be achieved gradually as capitalism expanded globally and technology replaced heavy industrial work and people worked less hours and could use their time for themselves.” In plain bold reality this is not happening, people in both the First and Third World are both working longer hours. The only real exception are those in Western Europe, particularly Sweden and Norway. Sweden has been flirting with the idea of a six hour work day.
If we accept this ‘post-industrial leisure society’ out of capitalism to be true, then I think we’re ignoring the source of the creation of value. For people to have a leisure society there must be a greater generation of value to make it so leisurely. As we’ve seen in the past there can only be a leisure class when there is another class working to reproduce it. Yet, with the mechanization of labour, less overall value is generated leading to a decline in the rate of profit. This why manufacturing has been moved to the Third World, they have all the benefits of labour generating value with less expenditure on variable capital. This is what has allowed our daily commodity consumption to increase, the decreased price of them. The labour necessary to create such abundance (and a corresponding access to such abundance) is still in existence. It exists in the Third World which is why there has been such a drive to industrialize it. Our material existence has increased at the cost of greater exploitation in the Third World. Clearly we can see there is no forming ‘leisure society’. We’ve merely shifted the industrial burden onto others.
We have created a partial leisure (abundant social programs) for ourselves at the expense of super-exploitation of Third World workers
I think the main point to make here about refuting the ‘post-capitalist leisure society’ coming out of capitalism, is that capitalism does not produce for luxury satisfaction (a use-value), it produces for what can be collected in exchange (exchange-value). Anything that is produced is done to make profits. Essentially the claim by Keynes is that the capitalist firm will start producing without profits in mind. If there is no profit motive then they’re not going to invest in production. This is simply the antithesis to capitalism itself. It would seem Keynes is making the argument that capitalism will simply ‘wither away’. We cannot expect such a thing given that we know that such reorganizations of society have occurred through class antagonisms. Capitalism came into existence by other throwing the feudal system via the conflict between the feudal lords and the capitalists. Using their power, the capitalist class seized the means of production from the feudal lords and the small producer.
Marx laid out exactly what technology does in capitalism, quite contradictory to what Keyes believed.
“Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialise labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime.”
– Karl Marx, Kapital vol.1, 1867
People with Keynes’ idea place all of their faith in technology to solve problems and bring about a better world. Technology alone cannot do this; the application of technology is limited by the social relations that wield them. Technology in the hands of the capitalist class is innovation and design only for profits. In other words, it is developed for its potential exchange-value creation not its use-value to satisfy human need. You cannot simply throw technology at a society or a problem and expect it to get better. There has to be a corresponding transformation of people as well in order to change society. You cannot drop a tribesman into Wall Street office and expect him to understand capitalism. Those same productive forces are now just causing poverty with crisis and rising inequality.
“In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.”
– Karl Marx, The German Ideology Part 1, 1845
The same would have to happen to achieve this new society. Since the capitalist only produces for exchange-value, to begin production for use-value solely for the wider mass of the population, the means of production would have to be seized from them and their profit motive. In each of these cases when a radical reorganization has taken place, one class has over thrown another. The reason is because it’s necessary. No class simply disappears of its own volition, neither will the capitalist class. So if someone has overthrow them, who? The working class of course.
However as we have already seen, this industrial base in the Third World is a benefit to the workers in the First World. We could only have these high living standards as long as they are based on the resource theft and inequality with the third world. This means they would then present an antagonism to the First world.
As the article correctly points out there has been no dramatic loss of poverty. Poverty has merely been shifted globally. As we afford more commodities at a cheaper cost, the cost of living for Third World people has increased. A dollar a day doesn’t purchase very much at all. There is very much a high cost of living in the Third World.
Despite what many First Worldists claim there is a transfer of value between the First and Third World, one that benefits First World people. We have a higher living standard because of our theft of value. There is a claim by First Worldists that the cost of living in the Third World is lower so therefore that $1 or $2 a day they get is enough to live off of because a dollar is worth more there than it is here. As we’ll quickly see this simply is not the case, the cost of living is actually higher. Now this data comes from the LLCO which has been and still is the leader in the Third Worldist theory. They did some calculations and came up with these interesting facts. Their article was written in response to someone who made this very claim.
“[…] I’ve converted them to U.S. dollars using the current rate of 1000 cedis = $0.11.
“First of all, the minimum wage is 13,500 cedis per day. That’s US$1.48. In hourly terms, that’s $0.19 an hour for an 8-hour day. Compare it to a minimum of $5.15 an hour (more in some cities and states) in the U.S..
“A live chicken (broiler) costs 60,000 cedis ($6.58). It would cost less in the U.S., where a processed chicken would be less than $5 (and even a roasted chicken wouldn’t be $6.58). The minimum-wage worker in the U.S. could buy that chicken in less than an hour. In Ghana, one would have to work for 4.5 days to buy it.
“A bottle of beer (”Club”), 1 liter, is about 8000 cedis ($0.88). A comparable product might be 3 times as much in the U.S.. But we’re comparing half an hour to five.
“…[for bread] The most recent price given at that site is 6,000-10,000 cedis in 2003, when the exchange rate was about 8500 cedis to the U.S. dollar. Suppose that a loaf of bread costs about the same, $1 (9100 cedis at current rates), today. In the U.S., it is about twice as much for bread of good quality. The U.S. worker earns 2.6 loaves in an hour. In Ghana, about 2/3 of a loaf in a day.
“This article claims that a decent lunch at a “chop bar” would cost 30,000 cedis ($3.30), which is more than twice the minimum wage for a whole day. It says that no one can afford to rent a room (not an apartment, a room) and eat on that low wage. The author calls for raising the minimum wage to 25,000 cedis per day, which still would not be enough for lunch at a chop bar. The U.S. worker could have an extremely nice dinner in an elegant restaurant for his day’s wages of $41.20.
“[…] A gallon of gas costs 30,000 cedis ($3.36). In the U.S. it was $2.25 (20,250 cedi), but I’m going to make that $2.70 (24,300 cedis) because Ghana uses imperial gallons, which are about 20% larger than U.S. gallons. A U.S. worker can buy that gallon of gas in half an hour. A Ghanaian worker would have to work for more than 2 days to buy it.
“… [another source claims] rent as being $7/month. Sounds cheap? It’s for one room in a run-down old building. The kitchen and the bathroom are communal. Often even the room itself is shared. Such housing can hardly be found in the U.S. (and I bet the condition of the building in Ghana would be enough to get it condemned in the U.S.), but let’s compare housing as a percentage of wages. That’s what a Ghanaian earning the average got for 30% of his or her salary. A U.S. worker spending 30% of the minimum wage on rent would have $265, which is enough to rent a decent apartment with roommates in many places.”
– The High cost of living in the Third World, LLCO
Clearly the rightist line that a dollar a day near slave labour is not a boon for the Third World. Is it bringing them out of poverty given the facts? This certainly indicates that there is a global class divide. By this we understand it in the classical Marxist sense laid out by the article itself.
“It does depend on the class struggle between labour and capital over the appropriation of the value created by the productivity of labour. And clearly labour has been losing that battle, particularly in recent decades, under the pressure of anti-trade union laws, ending of employment protection and tenure, the reduction of benefits, a growing reserve army of unemployed and underemployed and through the globalisation of manufacturing.
“According to the ILO report, in 16 developed economies, labour took a 75% share of national income in the mid-1970s, but this dropped to 65% in the years just before the economic crisis. It rose in 2008 and 2009 – but only because national income itself shrank in those years – before resuming its downward course. Even in China, where wages have tripled over the past decade, workers’ share of the national income has gone down. Indeed, this is exactly what Marx meant by the ‘immiseration of the working class’.”
– De-industrialisation and socialism, Michael Roberts
The author is describing a global class divide forming, but not the one Marx had originally envisioned. Even from his own writing it comes across clearly. It’s at times like tese we usually see First Worldists deny the global class divide. I am making no assumptions about the author as I cannot claim to know his view on the subject. But from his own words it would seem as though the ‘immiseration of the working class’ seems to be really occurring in the proletariat in the Third World. Marx stated that the workers had nothing to lose but their chains, a phrase that has been taken for granted by First Worldists. Today First World people have a lot more to lose. Very tangible things like the social democratic benefits they enjoy: social assistance, welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, abundant cheap commodities, etc.. The proletariat in the Third World has only their chains to lose as we’ve seen from their cost of living and the conditions thereof.
These benefits are purchased with the wages of imperialism. In a global redistribution of wealth the First World would lose out significantly, a dramatic drop in their living standard. A new iPhone every year, a new television and other such luxury commodities would be lost in such a transfer of wealth. The average working class person, let alone the middle-class, would be aghast at their loss of value and privilege. All First Worldist groups platform on the idea that workers would gain more form revolution, a more equitable redistribution of wealth in society. In other words they act on the premise of appealing to material incentives. But in a global redistribution of wealth no such thing would take place. The First World would lose out tremendously. They claim however that global revolution would bring up the Third World to their level, this is however false. It is estimated that for the entire world to live at American middle-class level and its rate of consumption it would take three whole planet Earths of resources to sustain it. Obviously this cannot happen, a great deal of the world’s resource consumption would have to be redirected by to the Third World to those who need it, and most likely produced it.
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De-industrialisation and socialism, Michael Roberts blog
Karl Marx, Kapital vol.1, 1867
Karl Marx, The German Ideology Part 1, 1845
The High cost of living in the Third World, LLCO