Further from my earlier post on productive labour and alienation (here), I want to explore the relationship between labour and value in a bit more depth. It feels especially timely to do this as there are a series of social crises in the UK, and the industrialised West more broadly, that relate very closely to the categories of work, value and productivity. These are neatly captured by the growth of the gig economy, with all its accompanying social pressures, the threat of automation, and the broader economic crisis facing the international system as a whole. There are a variety of explanations for this crisis, of which I have found Michael Roberts’s work on the falling rate of profit one of the most interesting. However, it is insufficient in itself, because this has to be situated against global economic growth and rapidly widening inequality, in which the very wealthy have been able to extract remarkable returns on their capital. Whatever complex web of explanatory factors is taken into account, it is clear that the current fully-globalised phase of capitalism is succeeding in pulling vast amounts of value out of the system and accruing it to the hands of an increasingly narrow group at the top. Perhaps profit margins are being squeezed at a systemic level, but that might not be a useful point from which to start when trying to get a handle on inequality and its relationship to waged and unwaged labour. It is important to note that this accumulation process provokes serious economic crises like the most recent financial crash, which actually helps to obscure the fact that the system operates at a constant level of social-crisis-conditions for the majority of the world’s population. But, as with thinking about profit margins, foregrounding these social and ecological crises does not give us a clear insight into the process that is expanding inequality in a broader system of increasing production (growth) coupled with increasing immiseration.
I would argue that the key mechanisms of that process reveal themselves in the relationship between labour and value. In my earlier post I focused on the particular feelings of alienation that come with waged labour, and that are particularly acute with office-based service sector jobs where at times the value or product that you might be creating is almost impossible to perceive. Although David Graeber had more things in mind when he talked of ‘bullshit jobs’, as a term it does capture the discomfort that haunts the employee who, when being honest with themselves, is very dubious about the value they are supposedly creating, and thereby of their own job security and self-worth. Graeber focused on the idea that it is very valuable to the ruling classes of capitalist societies to keep their populations engaged in pointless jobs to stop them thinking about other things (politics, for example). This is a useful point, but it misses an often overlooked key fact of capitalism. This is that capitalism wastes resources, and thereby capital, as part of its systematic function. This means that the existence of ‘bullshit’ jobs rests on more than an elite political conspiracy, or even a vaguely social-democratic response to ‘market’ pressures of automation and international labour competition.
The inherent wastefulness of capitalism is often overlooked, in the face of its wide variety of exploitations. It is clear that, since its inception, capitalism has always depended upon vast amounts of unpaid labour, the appropriation of existing resources which can be valued in the market (so-called primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession), and the exploitation of waged labourers creating surplus value as profit for their employers. But these are all the oft-repeated economic ‘strengths’ of capitalism, which, for those who do not care about ecology or the flourishing of humanity, are easily held up as achievements unsurpassable by any other form of social organisation. The relate to the capitalist system’s ruthless exploitation of all resources.What is so easily overlooked in this process is the waste involved in the function of capitalism. Waste on a scale that should boggle the mind, and must be unique in history.
Thinking about waste as central to the function of capitalism sheds a different light on our understanding of labour, value and exploitation. Yes, one can work in a bullshit job in which it does not seem to hold true that you are producing socially valuable outputs from which your employer is claiming a large amount of value and for which they reward you with a smaller part. It is also quite likely that such work is encouraged, and the profits for the employer supported, by government aid, in one form or another, for a variety of political purposes – both nefarious and benign. But it also seems true that the waste of your existence that is involved in such employment is also endemic to capitalism.
This should not come as a surprise. Most of us have seen (footage of) the mountains of rotting food that pile up in farmland, where the cost of transporting it to consumers is too high for its market price; the excessive quantities of food (three-for-two when you want one!) purchased by richer consumers without the capacity to eat it; the waste involved in restaurants at all stage of the production and consumption process (epitomised in high dining shows like Masterchef); and in supermarkets that now work hard to lock away their waste food lest some poor soul manage to forage it from their bins and thereby both sustain themselves and somehow undermine its market value. This process has become so absurd that we even live with cautionary tales of individuals who consumed free food, preventing it going to waste, became poisoned and then sued their benefactor, subsequently retiring to some island resort to live off the compensation secured by their fantastic lawyers… who, presumably, were working pro bono because they hate the idea of free food so much. Actually that last sentence I intended as sarcastic, but I can imagine many who would fit the bill. Joking aside, this patently absurd ‘anecdote’ is still trucked out as a reason to lock away food waste, or to have certain surpluses released only through government registered charitable bodies – thereby controlling and monitoring those who find themselves existing on the fringes of the state (I hope to write more on this later, after having heard disturbing reports of collaboration between Shelter, St Mungo’s and other homelessness charities and the Home Office). Again, even if you can imagine the recipient of free food wanting to sue for food poisoning, how on earth do you go about this without wealth, education and contacts – the tattered remnants of legal aid?
Waste, in market terms, is also essential to the function of imperialism within the international economy. This is an process in which vast systems work to overproduce in huge quantities and then dump this on defenceless nations under the guise of aid, be it food or other basic consumer products. It is a system in which built in obsolescence is central to most production models, and in which meaningless incremental technological releases are central to the profits of tech giants that are supposedly ruthlessly competing with one another. The production chains behind most modern industrial products are strewn with vast quantities of waste at every point, embodied by the vast tracts of polluted land in associated with the extraction of fuel and the production of rare earths for smartphones and laptops.
That the idea that waste is central to capitalism might feel somewhat counter-intuitive is rooted in the mythology that surrounds the idea of ‘competition’ and the drive for profit. This is where capitalism, and the private sector, justifies its own existence: in the pressure of competition and the harnessing of human greed (supposedly the most powerful of motivators) to the progress of all humanity through ruthless efficiency gains and technological innovation. There are many persuasive pieces of work available setting out to counter this mythology, and Mariana Mazzucato has done a particularly good job in demolishing the idea of the private sector as the engine of invention and innovation, but they are not central to this discussion. What is important to focus on is the power of this mythology to convince its audience that capitalism cannot be wasteful, because to be wasteful is to forego chances of making a profit. Moments of waste can then be understood as a breakdown of the system, as market failures.
Now much of Marxist theory has dedicated its time to explaining how these failures are central to the function of capitalism; that crisis is inherent to capitalism. The historical record demonstrates this to be true, but we are still faced with politicians claiming to end cycles of boom and bust as if these have simply resulted from us meddling too much in the purity of the system. This delusion is central to the entire discipline of economics, as it feeds the idea that it is possible to make a meaningful separation between social reality and an economically-modelled reality, and that we can somehow work to effect ‘pure’ market conditions by stepping back and letting those mathematical and mystical forces do their own work. I have yet to sit in a talk by a remotely mainstream economist and not laugh (inwardly) at the absurdity of their listing of definitions and scope in order for their analysis to begin. The best example of this is current work on inequality, which for all its insights continues to founder on an inability to account effectively for existing wealth, or for the reluctance of the top percentiles to reveal their income sources.
Just as crisis a central component of capitalism, so is waste. In particular, wasteful labour. Waste itself is the destruction of value, both in terms of the failure to realise any potential use of the wasted product, and the failure to exchange it for any other form of value. In this sense waste is also the destruction of labour, invested in the production, transport or transformation of material that is now wasted. But wasteful labour is slightly different. In that instance labourer’s time is being purchased, whilst the labour is, perhaps, not producing social value. For the concerns of the employer, that capital spent as wages is being wasted. Surely this should be insupportable, and standard economics would expect the ‘market’ to correct this ‘aberration’. However, at the very least this would require those involved in the business to care, or to have access to the knowledge that they are wasting labour. I want to advance two arguments for why this might not be the case.
Firstly, the idea that this concern will be central to the capitalist, CEO or shareholders, is rooted in the aforementioned myth that capitalism is ruthlessly efficient. This itself is rooted in the mythology of capitalist competition. The beauty of Marx’s Capital is that it exposed this myth even accepting the idealised conditions of classical economics, but the argument I want to pursue here is that thinking of waste as central to capitalism helps to foreground something other than discussions of efficiency and competition. Instead, it draws attention to the differentiation made between waged (productive) labour and everything else.
A lot of Marxist theory, in its critique of capitalism, has been accused of falling foul of an overt focus on waged labour, as the producer of commodities and the driver of capitalist exchange and the production of surplus value. This overlooks a series of crucial elements of capitalist accumulation. Quoting Maria Mies, Jason Moore (2017) put this brilliantly, noting that ‘[t]he paid work of (some) humans remains the economic pivot of capital – socially necessary labour-time. But its necessary conditions of reproduction are found in the unpaid work of ‘women, nature, and colonies’ (Mies 1986, 77)’ (my emphasis). Moore goes on to state that ‘[c]apitalism thrives when islands of commodity production and exchange can appropriate oceans of potentially Cheap Natures – outside the circuit of capital but essential to its operation’ (2017, 6). It is worth bracketing for the moment Moore’s idea of ‘cheap natures’, which are the ways in which he sees natural objects as being valued for the purposes of joining the ‘circuit of capital’. I think we can go further to say that this unpaid work, and ‘cheap nature’ is absolutely central to processes of accumulation within capitalism, and should never be considered as ‘outside’ of the circuit of capital. This is highly reminiscent of the ways in which economists have tried to refer to factors that fail to get priced into economic models, as ‘externalities’. Although this clearly functions as an accounting method, the reality is rather that capitalism, or the extraction of profit from productive processes, relies on externalising various costs – be they species- or environmental-reproduction, household labour or social care more generally, or existing investments in infrastructure (public or private). Accumulation, in this sense, requires dispossession by wilful ignorance (and brutal force).
Secondly, I would argue that a potential side effect of this systemic externalising of costs in order to extract profit finds itself replicated within the workplace, and service sector jobs in particular. Clearly wasteful labour on a production line is easily identified, and the management practices of such work seem defined by this reality. In the service sector, slightly different forces seem to operate. Because production of value is more amorphous, particularly with ‘consultancy’ services, and highly socially dependent, high ranking managers and CEOs tend to operate purely in pursuit of their own career goals, caring only about the value they are able to extract from whatever sector they find themselves in. Under such a system, very few people will care whether or not the labour-time anyone is expending is actually producing anything of value. They are concerned about office politics – about job security, who will palm off what workload to what other sector of the business, and which group of high level managers will decide to restructure what in pursuit of their career goals. Within this the ability to secure a career path into the upper echelons requires the absence of any real knowledge of technical capability, but rather an understanding of which palms to grease and how – epitomised in the skill-set of a project managers or ‘change consultants’ who sell themselves on the production of highly abstract ‘results’, rather than the long term health of whatever organisation they blundered their way into.
I think of this as vaguely similar to how Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism’s production of the career politician. But rather than understanding any of these things as separate, we can these this entire process as endemic to contemporary (late) capitalism. A sclerotic and abominably wasteful social system, leeching off the unpaid labour of millions of women, children and men, partially enslaving many more, exploiting further millions in exploitative labour, and then employing numbers more – that lucky few, to have escaped the previous categories – to frantically waste their lives in exchange for a wage they cannot see the sense of, should they dare to look too deeply. Through them all work those with an aspiration to be at the top, and above them sway the 10% or 1%, or whichever measure we decide to take, who are managing to secure riches in the most bleak of productive phases, and upon mountains and mountains of waste.