Labor-power: an excess commodity for capital.
Capital: An obsolete and destructive mode of production for the collective worker.
The Paradox: “Despite unprecedented global wealth, poverty is gaining ground in the West.” (French newspaper Liberation, 10/11/2013)
Never has so much wealth been produced. But 120 million Europeans live in, or are about to plunge into, poverty. Housing evictions continue in Spain. Food distributions are increasing, and queues are lengthening at the “soup kitchens”, including the major cities. The increase in unemployment is inexorable, and has reached unprecedented levels among young people. “Europe is facing the worst humanitarian crisis in sixty years.” (1) Social regression is blowing in the wind, and the number of workers who cannot pay their bills rise is continuously rising. The future does not look better: “The problems engendered will be felt for decade, even if the economy improves in the near future.”
How did we get to this point?
Is it the fault of the “cure” of radical austerity that the IMF advocated with the European commission? Is it the Incentives to deregulate the labor market, advocated by the IMF? Is it that National governments have made “gifts” to businesses, while taxing the workers? The IMF pouts remorsefully, and regrets that “inequality has intensified in recent decades” and that “the tax system has become less progressive” (C. Lagarde, head of the IMF), but would a possible tax on the wealthy remedy “the worst humanitarian crisis” that Europe has known in 60 years?
What has happened since 2008?
Why does the working class which, by its labor, creates wealth find itself brutally and inexorably dispossessed? Why have the issues of wages, and unemployment, become so prominent? What are the perspectives? Is it simply a “bad time,” that we must pass trough in order to return to a better future, to “full employment”?
Despite appearances of “democracy,” (2) the social relations under which we live do not allow us to decide, either about the purpose of production nor how to distribute wealth. Capitalism is a world in which work does not exist in its dimension as a “creative human force” but only under the form of labor exchanged for a wage, which alone gives access to the wealth produced by the workers themselves. It is this same labor which is the source of wealth creation, but which, in capitalism takes the form of value, the valorization of capital. Capital needs labor to extract surplus-value to continue to accumulate. Without exploiting human labor, no accumulation of capital is possible.
But another tendency increasingly pushes capital to devalorize, to destroy the old means of production, to increase productivity, and therefore to reduce the amount of living labor contained in commodities. Faced with the crisis, capital must search for new means to increase profits. Profits can only be made at the expense of labor, by reducing labor costs, by companies that are no longer competitive laying off workers, by developing the “informal economy”, that is, the exploitation of labor power without any form of social security. This is why the IMF, while pretending to regret the harsh austerity policies imposed by it continues to urge Paris (for example) “to stabilize its fiscal policy, to reduce its expenses and to give companies more flexibility to adjust wages and staff”. Wage labor seems to have become an obsolete category, while remaining a necessity for capital.
In the first part of this text, we will see the ways in which the “workforce” has been attacked in recent years. In the second part, we will sum up the reactions of the “collective worker”. In the conclusion, we will return to the question of labor, which seems essential to understand the stakes of the present period.
1. A Massive Destruction of the Working Class
Let’s define the “collective worker” as not just “industrial workers” or “those who receive a wage”, but those who must sell their labor power against a wage to be able to procure, through that wage, the means for their very reproduction, and the reproduction of their own labor power, or by “those who are devoid of any means for autonomous production”. In this perspective, the “collective worker” includes an ever-greater share of the population. Another consequence is that the collective worker has a series of “faces:” workers in industrial concentrations, office workers, and the unemployed, young people not integrated into the labor market, graduates or non-graduates, etc. Never was the collective worker (i.e. those who have only their labor power to sell) so savagely attacked on several fronts. This results in a generalized impoverishment.
Layoffs: We regularly learn that a company closes or relocates, and dismisses all its workers. The testimonies of those dismissed reveal anger and despair, but also indignation, revolt against the fact of being treated as objects, discarded when no longer of use, whereas during the past years on the job, these workers had tried to do their job properly, and even often took reduced wages (the price of their labor power) in order to keep their jobs. The worker’s condition appears more and more for what it is: the worker is employed, used while his/her labor power creates profit, once the search for profit leads to the closure of the company, or its relocation, or its reduction in size, the labor force is treated like any other object that you no longer use; it’s disposed of. There is no “soul” in capitalist social relations, no taking account of “services rendered”, nothing other than a relation where the labor power of the human being is treated as a thing.
Non-integration into the labor market Previously, the failure to find a way to enter the labor market was the lot of people in the “Third World”. Today, it is increasingly what faces young people in European countries. In Spain, 50% of young men and women are unemployed. Parents know that the future (finding jobs, raising a family, having a place to live) will be more difficult for their children than it was for them. According to IMF forecasts, the Spanish unemployment rate will not be less than 25% in the next five years. In Greece, the unemployment rate has reached 27% of the population and 60% among 15-25 year olds. The homeless are more numerous, and lines form waiting for food.
Increased migration and anti-immigration policies Lampedusa, October 2013: Some 400 people die, drowned in the Mediterranean. The boats, carrying immigrants from Eritrea coming to try to sell their labor power sank, and the lives and the dreams of families, youth and children ended at the bottom of the sea. Europe is becoming a fortress, (3) protecting its labor market with ever more drastic immigration measures, and the Mediterranean a cemetery for those who dare try to cross it.
But Europe is not only a destination dreamed of by immigrants; it has also become the starting point for new migration flows. Spanish youth for example know that they will leave the community after graduation, hoping that their degree will enable them to sell their labor elsewhere.
The decrease in the price of labor power In Greece, the politics of drastic austerity imposed by the IMF, the European Commission and European Central Bank have led to a huge fall in the price of labor. Many Greek workers now work for 500 euro per month: "Today, the average monthly wage of a Greek is 580 euro and 510 euro for a young employee. The average cost of labor for a Greek is 3.7 euro per hour according to data collected by Eurostat in April 2013. (Belgian radio RTBF, September 18, 2013) 4. More generally, the “European Trade Union Institute, ETUI (European Trade Union Institute), focused on the evolution of wages in Europe since the year 2000. This study shows that in 15 of 27 countries, real wages have declined since the crisis”.
In the Americas too: “Several recent studies show that Mexico is becoming more competitive than China in terms of labor costs. Ten years ago, Mexican wages were 3 times higher than in China in the manufacturing sector. Now the trend has reversed”. (See Fortune
In “developed” countries, there appears a tendency to increase low cost ancillary workers. In Belgium, for example, nearly 300.000 foreign workers, members of the European Union (Polish, Romanian, Portuguese, Slovak, and Hungarian) are currently “permitted” for a specified time. One third of these workers are underpaid, either because they work longer hours than the terms of their contracts permit, or because they are simply underpaid compared to Belgian workers. Even if low cost work is underpaid (1200 euro per month for an “auxiliary post” in 2013), it is sought after, because it’s a source of income for some of the young people who otherwise would find themselves unemployed.
Labor power used illegally and underpaid: The informal, parallel economy, is gaining ground. In Brazil, 300,000 Bolivians (or 500,000 according to other sources) were expatriates, working but so far without a work permit or visa. Therefore, “a large number of Bolivians have no work card signed by the employer, i.e. they work improperly and without social protection.” In the informal economy, having become a cog in the fashion industry in Brazil, the workshops have 5 or 6 employees paid by the piece, without pay by the day. They work for 318 euro per month. Casualization has no limit. According to an estimate, there are 10,000 such workshops. Men and women work 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. Under-cover operations have “freed 181 slaves” since 2008!
Physical destruction/elimination of labor Labor power today exceeds the absorptive capacity of capitalism in the form of wage labor, and can no longer be considered a “reserve army”. Capital does not know what to do with this excess labor-power or how to keep it docile; it is a part of the working class that neither works nor – lacking a wage – is a consumer. The destruction of the surplus labor force, the physical elimination of some of its parts will not cause the world leaders to shed any tears -- on the contrary.
Do we exaggerate? Of course, the crematoria belong to the past. But there are many ways to get rid of the labor power that capital can no longer absorb: wars (see the articles on Syria, in this issue); the increase in food prices, leading to famines, caused, not by natural disasters, but by speculation to increase profits; bank failures (Spain, Greece, Cyprus), which strip workers of their savings, and prevent them from planning their future; increasing repression and imprisonment (in the United States, there are now more black men and women imprisoned or on probation or parole, than blacks enslaved in 1850, before the start of the Civil War. (See Slate Afrique ) The so-called “war against drugs”, a very profitable industry for some, is actually a “war against the poor”. “In some black inner-city neighborhoods, four in five blacks are likely to fall into the net of the criminal justice system in their lives.” Blacks are so “over-represented” in prison, that they form 35% of the inmates while they represent only 13% of the total population. With Latinos, blacks represent 30% of the population in the United States, but 60% of those in prison. There are other ways in which the surplus labor power can be reduced: the pollution of working class living areas. A recent study (4) establishes a link between air pollution and reduced life expectancy in China. As the Financial Times reports, there is a reduced life expectancy in Northern China, where air pollution has assumed epidemic proportions.
The collective worker, who must sell its labor power in exchange for a wage, is being attacked on all sides: layoffs, non-integration into the labor market, loss of housing, loss of replacement allowances, increased repressive laws, expulsion from the European zone, etc.
But, the collective worker is also a class with reflexes of solidarity, with the capacity to organize, with a need to defend itself against the total injustice done to it, and to defend its non-commodified values. We will now turn to this aspect of the present situation.
2) The Many-Sided Response of the Working Class
The multiple faces of the collective worker (factory workers, unemployed youth, auxiliary workers, illegal immigrants…) also mean that demonstrations of opposition to capitalism are varied, without their necessarily having an explicit link with one another. There are different ways of reacting, of developing self- consciousness, of putting in question capitalist commodity relations.
Strikes Today strikes often occur just to get paid for work already done, or against payment delays. (5) There are strikes against layoffs, or to negotiate dismissal at the best possible price, where workers openly express their rage at having spent their life working for a company only to be ejected like some commodity that has become obsolete.
Mass demonstrations The most recent being those in Brazil and Turkey. In Brazil, in March 2013, mass demonstrations were triggered by a spark in a tinder box just ready to flare up: the increase of a few cents in the price of transport. From Porto Alegre, the protests spread geographically throughout Brazil, and in their content, raised broader claims against government policy, and particular the Pharaonic style expenses related to the FIFA World Cup 2014. These resources, the demonstrators demanded, should instead be spent on health, education, social welfare, where investment has decreased. With up to a million demonstrators, the protests clearly focused on the contradiction between “human needs” and the “needs of capital.”
Mass demonstration of students in Chile (May and September): Against the “too expensive” and poor system of education, hundreds of demonstrations bringing together tens of thousands of students have been held since 2011. They demanded lower costs on the loans taken out by students to finance their studies. In the logic of capitalism, it is the future worker who must pay for his training, even if a degree is no guarantee that the worker will actually be able to sell his/her labor power on the market.
Riots: Sweden, in May 2013. There were four nights of riots that recall the suburban riots in France in 2005, and England in 2011, with torched cars, looted libraries and schools. A destructive energy turned against capitalist symbols was unleashed. The “model of social integration” lay in ashes. At the same time, movements opposed to a reduction of resources devoted to education occurred.
Struggles against housing evictions: Spain: 250,000 evictions since the beginning of the crisis. Banks have become owners of thousands of empty homes; they do not know what to do with them, and leave them abandoned, while continuing to demand from those evicted the payment of all their debt. Neighborhood Committees have organized to occupy empty homes. The evicted families have invested their time and labor in the abandoned houses and apartments. Is that not a powerful metaphor: the bloodsucking of income by the banks, pushing people to appropriate (by force, through organization) the enjoyment of the “goods” from which they have been excluded by an economy based on value?
Struggles against the expulsion of persons: France, October 2013: Leonarda, a young Kosovar girl, 15 years old, educated in France, together with her family, were deported. The authorities seized the girl during a trip made on school time. Immediate reactions in the street: thousands of young students protesting against the expulsion of schoolchildren. There is no doubt that the image of Valls, the Socialist Minister, and President Hollande, took quite a hit in the eyes of thousands of high school students: “This expulsion is the straw that broke the camel’s back” “it is unacceptable that students are expelled. This goes against the Constitution and human rights.” Valls has no right to do that, he is supposed to be on the left and advocate equality”. (see Le Monde
3. A Questioning of the Capitalist Social Relation Based on the Value-Form?
The movement of the crisis has inexorably deepened, with “levels” of temporary stabilization. However, this trend can only continue and will affect the so-called emerging markets like China, and Brazil, countries relatively unscathed so far. Capital will increasingly refuse to pay to ensure the survival of those who have only their labor power to exchange for a wage. The manifestations we pointed to (suicides, mass demonstrations, lootings, strikes, occupation of public sites and work places) will also increase. We live in the time of chaos.
In a situation of radical attack on its living conditions, the collective workers finds the energy, and discovers new ways to react, to survive, such as the occupation of empty houses, appropriation of goods during looting, etc. Workers, in these moments of struggle, experience that its value that separates them from the goods which they need to assure their reproduction. In these moments of struggle, the collective worker also develops the affirmation of its needs, and its consciousness of the fact that they are antagonistic to those of capital, which vampirizes wealth to feed its hunger for profit (see the example of Brazil).
But this is only one moment of a process. The austerity measures (Greece) generated both rebellion and acceptance. Because having a job (or keeping it), is also essential to survive, even with a minimal wage. Thus neither the mass demonstrations in Brazil nor the movements in Spain affected production. There is not (yet) a convergence between movements which paralyze production and the movements of occupation of public spaces or buildings and the demonstrations around them.
But how to get “from here to there?” Will the consciousness that we can abolish capitalism, that other social relations, other ways to produce and to share wealth is possible, arise and develop? The clear articulation of the goal, of social relations not based on value, is a vital element of such a dialectical process.
Indeed, some counter-tendencies against such a process will also inevitably develop: So, in Brittany (France), the management of the slaughterhouse Gad, on the verge of cutting 900 jobs, used Romanian casual workers to work in a nearby slaughterhouse. The anger of the workers of Gad was directed against not just their bosses, but also at the foreign workers hired for lower wages. Marine Le Pen (the National Front) found a fertile ideological breeding ground for her anti-immigrant and racist discourse.
As Lenin said, “It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.” (Left Wing Communism, Chapter 9
The class war leads each side to measure the extent of its power: repression, tear gas, tanks on the side of capital, strikes, organization, solidarity, mass movements, riots on the side of the collective worker. Even if the bourgeoisie displays an unprecedented arrogance and repression, we must remain attentive to the points where its apparatus is susceptible to cracks and fissures, where, for example the police, or the army, fraternize with demonstrators. The project of a community based on non-commodity relations is universal.
In this war without mercy, the collective worker not only confronts the forces of classical repression, but also the schemes of the left and the leftist factions that promote a “fairer” capitalism: a more equitable redistribution of wealth, an expansion of effective demand through public works, a rise in wages, all of which are in reality impossible within capitalist society today, but which can constitute effective means to ideologically control the collective worker and its discontent
The class war also means that the time of “dreams” within this system is finished. In capitalism, increases in material wealth make the producers poorer. Increases in productivity could liberate us from the dependency on human labor. But rather than reducing the labor-day, labor is intensified and extended, and new forms of slavery arise , (see Des Nouvelles Du Front) while those not integrated into the labor market are simply and cruelly sacrificed. There is no place for a “leisure society,” for a development of free time, in capitalism. What must be abolished is abstract labor, the very mode of existence of the collective worker in capitalist society; the labor that produces surplus-value as the necessary goal of capitalist production. (6)
1. In France, 350,000 people fell below the poverty line. And 3.5 million Europeans are dependent on food distribution points of the Red Cross (report from the Red Cross).
Articles analyzing “democracy“ will appear in the next issue of Internationalist Perspective
3. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), three walls have erected to prevent migration to Europe. The first, built in 1998, and raised from 3 meters to 6 meters in 2005, prevents Moroccans from entering the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The second, a wall the length of 12.5 km, was completed in 2012 between Greece and Turkey. The construction of the third, between Turkey and Bulgaria will soon be underway and should be completed in 2015: 30 km long and 3 meters tall, it will be the longest wall in Europe in 15 years. Bulgaria has been considered by human smugglers as the "cheapest gateway to Europe”: 500 Euro on average for the passage from Turkey to Europe (Le Monde, 10 & 11/11/2013). Walls built between Israel and Palestine (2002) and between the United States and Mexico (2006), show that the globalization of capital is accompanied by a desire to control migration flows.
4. The study uses the Huai River as a way to test the effect of life expectancy on the population. North of the river, the Chinese government has allowed the population free use of coal in 1981, while the inhabitants of South of the river did not have this opportunity. Using data from 1981 to 2000, the authors calculated that the rate of particles in the air was 55% higher in the far North than in the South. Meanwhile, the southerners had cardiovascular disease rates lower than those of the North. Overall, the effect of exposure to micro- particles is estimated to be a reduction in life expectancy of 5.5 years.
5. Bangladesh, October 2013: Thousands of factories across the country were paralyzed by a massive strike by workers demanding to be paid for work performed. “This is a totally new situation," said a journalist in Dhaka, this is probably due to the recent tragedy of the collapse of a garment factory which caused hundreds of deaths. For their part, the owners of the factories are afraid of losing more customers if they have to pay their workers. "We’ll have to pay, not just for one hour, but for every hour” he lamented , fearing that this would force him to hire an accountant whom he would then have to pay as well... "It's an endless circle." There is fear of contagion. First, textiles, then construction. Other changes may follow, such as allowing a day of rest per week (!!) and the prohibition of child labor (!!!) (Source) . The most radical way to make profit = delete wages!
6. See: Bonefeld, W. (2010). "Abstract Labour: Against its nature and on its time." Capital & Class, 34: 257;
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