Life is Cheap

Life is cheap these days. That's nothing new, you might say, but it seems to be getting cheaper by the minute. While these lines are being written, a car-bomb explodes near a busy market, a child steps on a landmine, a mine collapses on workers, someone kills himself, someone is tortured to death… and so on and on and on.

The cheapening of life is not just an impression; it is literally true and measurable. The global average value of living labor is falling. Competing on a world-scale, the commodity labor power has the disadvantage of being massively overproduced. Close to two billion people are unemployed and many others do tasks that could easily be done by machines, if the labor were not so dirt-cheap. Thanks to new technology, capital has more access than ever to cheap labor and can play off workers of different countries against each other, so that they all lose and labor becomes even cheaper. And life with it.

The law of value rules the world and people internalize it. The rich define themselves by 'how much they’re worth,' and even the poor link their self-esteem to their value on the labor market. For the many cast out of this market, it is hard to stay strong, hard to maintain their sense of self-worth. Even if they get (more or less) the means to survive, they, like anybody, want to believe that their life has meaning. And that is very difficult in a society where all meaning comes from money, from value, from playing a role in its accumulation and expansion, from being a good commodity.

In places like Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraq more than half the population is unemployed. There are other countries where that is the case, but these countries have something else in common: they are occupied, the surest sign that they are at a point of conflict between capitals. These are, in essence, disputes over real estate, possession, capital. They are asymmetrical: one side in these conflicts enjoys a vast technological advantage. The other's only recourse is the cheapness of life.

This cheapness makes it possible for capitals disguised as political movements to penetrate the local labor markets and hire unemployed youths to become militants, soldiers, bomb fodder. A cheap investment, but the key to success is marketing: using the local religion to construct a new meaning of life for the despairing, a new pride for the self-loathing. The goals of these enterprises are clear. They seek control over towns, over institutions, to squeeze profit out of them and use them as a lever to gain more control, more real-estate, a state. Profit is in the driver's seat, not religion. They seek lebensraum ('living space'), as Hitler put it.

Capital's urge for lebensraum comes to the fore when its contradictions do so too: when overcapacity and a decline of the general rate of profit disrupt the rhythm of reproduction and capitals increasingly look to alternative ways to turn value into more value. Each one uses the means at its disposal. For the strongest capital, the US, these means involve controlling global markets where the playing field is tilted to its monopolistic advantage, controlling the movement of money so that the bulk of the world’s savings flow to it. That requires the use of its technological-military superiority, the demonstration of its capacity to enforce its rule. That's why the US three years ago, with the backing of both its alternating ruling parties, invaded Iraq. The occasion - the jingoistic climate fueled by the 11 September attacks, the military weakness and isolation of Iraq, a strategically crucial country - was just too sweet to let go by. For weaker capitals, an alternative way to turn value into more value is an investment in ethnic cleansing as Sudan has done in Darfur and which has taken place in so many other countries in recent years. It's not a risky investment for Sudan: as long as it cooperates with the US against its enemies, it can pretty much go ahead and empty Darfur. It's a bit more risky to attack the US in Iraq with the goal of grabbing power when it's gone. But the stakes are high given the potential oil-profits, and the diminishing support for the war in the US, makes it seem that the goal is not entirely impossible. Many local capitalists, oil men and others, give money under the table to opposing sides in Iraq, just like big companies give money to both parties in the US: you never know who’s going to win. These enterprises get the money they need for their struggle and they get the cannon fodder too. The key to that is to connect to the feelings of the discarded masses, judged valueless by the global production process, to sell them a story in which they become valuable again. They do so, for their employers, not by producing but by destroying. Thus the story must be based on rendering the object of destruction, the enemy, valueless.

To organize and sustain war, capital needs to demonize the enemy, to make him feared, hated and despised. The more capitalism's crisis intensifies, the more its politics nurture ideologies based on the rejection of the other. Each capital seeks only its own lebensraum, but in doing so it acts as an agent for the global capital, for whom more lebensraum necessarily involves reducing global overcapacity in an orgy of global destruction. So the poisonous ideologies that serve this purpose are pushed: Rejection of immigrants. Rejection of Arabs. Rejection of Americans. Tensions are fanned between Shia and Sunni, between Muslims and Christians and so on. Crises are created artificially to stoke the flames. The protests against the Danish cartoons about Mohammed for instance. For six months they provoked no reaction, then somebody pushes a button and they break out all over the world. Another button explodes a bomb in a Shia mosque and the Shia and Sunni go after each other. In Washington, a political bomb exploded over the sale of a company managing logistics in six US ports to an Arab company. A routine deal that would have gone unnoticed if it did not present such a choice occasion to fan the rejection of the other and score political points at the same time. No wonder a Washington Post poll indicated a sudden rise in fear and distrust of Middle-Easterners afterwards. Mission Accomplished.

None of those incidents was spontaneous. It also seems probable that, to a greater or lesser extent, they left the vast majority of people where they occurred either indifferent or scared and worried. But that is no reassurance. The events in places like Bosnia have shown that even when most people do not support war and its ideologies at the outset, they can be swept along in a dynamic of violence and counter-violence set in motion by determined minorities, armed and financed by capital. This can only be prevented by the self-organization of the only social force capable of resisting the destructive course capitalism is dragging society into: the working class.

That's why we say yes! to the militancy of the public transportation workers in New York, breaking capitalist law to fight against the attacks on pensions and health care of all workers; yes! to the anger of the unemployed, rioting in France and of students and workers there fighting a new law that makes it easier to fire young workers; yes! to the thousands of social protests in China. These are the flames that we want to fan into a firestorm because from such acts of class resistance, as flawed as they still may be, a different story can emerge: an understanding of the world not based on fear and rejection of the other but on the common interest of all of humanity, on the necessity and possibility to replace this mad destructive global system that reduces the value of people's lives to nothing, by one that truly cherishes life by kicking profit out of the driver's seat and making the satisfaction of human needs the goal of human society.


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