Karl Marx’s Capital is seldom read these days. This book by a dead, white European male has been tossed into the dustbins by the League of the Politically Correct and replaced by something more in fashion. Pity. What Marx had to say about capitalist exploitation still rings true even after more than a hundred years. This was driven home by an article I read recently about the current recession and the trend during that period to squeeze more work out of the labor force in the name of higher profits. Consider the following excerpt about the recent changes in the dynamics of the job market:
The drop comes after a string of steady gains in productivity, as employers slashed their payrolls during the 2007 recession but squeezed more output from thinner staffs. Some of those gains came from investment in technology and other efficiencies. Some of it came from asking workers – fearful of losing their jobs with the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent — to work harder and put in longer hours.
But employers have apparently wrung about as much work as they could from their existing employees. To increase output, they’ve had to hire back some of the people they laid off during the recession.
(Note here that there’s apparently a point of diminishing return in this dynamic. Employers are hiring back more workers not because they want to put people to work, but because productivity has dropped. This is not an ethical decision on the employers’ part; it is business as usual.)
I’m not a Marxist, though I think his notion of “alienation” is spot on. Further, he looked into the teeth of the capitalist beast and saw how it nurtured human greed and avarice. So let’s think about some of the things Marx had to say. He was convinced that the inherent nature of capitalism necessitated the exploitation of the workers in the name of increased profits. In the world of capitalism, the value of the products workers make is being determined independently of the amount of time they spend on the job. In Marx’s view, the opposite should be the case, as the value of the product should directly reflect the amount of labor time spent on its making. The separation here between labor and value results from the fact that the worker must sell his labor to the capitalist: his labor becomes a commodity. The ideal Marx had in mind was the intimate connection between a worker in his shop making, say, a chair, and the value he is able to realize in the market place. Once he goes to work for a factory owner his connection with the product of his labor is severed. Again, it is the intimate connections that Marx focused his attention upon. Capitalism, in his view, separated workers from their products and prices from real value. Those contradictions, he was convinced, would bring about the demise of capitalism as workers would experience increasing frustration and eventually rise up in revolt.
Well, he was certainly wrong about that. The closest thing we have to a revolt today is the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which barely causes a ripple in the capitalist fabric. And the chains that Marx saw binding the workers have been replaced by credit card debt. Capitalism has prospered as the unions (among other things) have made the lives of workers tolerable and they can now afford important things like iPods, televisions (charged on the credit card) and new cars (leased, of course). The contradictions within capitalism no longer bother most people and the moral message of Capital has been silenced by complacency. Though its numbers are shrinking, the “middle class” which has sprung up after Marx’s death is relatively content and the revolution that Marx foresaw no longer seems possible, much less likely. The “workers” seem content to take what is given them while the 1% continue to prosper and grow fat on the fruit of the labor of the other 99%. That is, the essential framework that Marx analyzed is still in place. The difference is that, for the most part, the workers no longer care that they are being exploited because they have been pacified with a smattering of goods that makes their lives tolerable in a culture that is designed to mollify their discontent.