The portentous development of our present economic system, leading to a mighty accumulation of social wealth in the hands of privileged minorities and to a constant repression of the great masses of people, prepared the way for the present political and social reaction and befriended it in every way. It sacrificed the general interests of human society to the private interests of individuals, and thus systematically undermined the true relationship between men. People forgot that industry is not an end in itself, but should be only a means to insure to man his material subsistence and to make accessible to him/her the blessings of higher intellectual culture. Where industry is everything, where labour loses its ethical importance and man is nothing, there begins the realm of ruthless economic despotism, whose workings are no less disastrous than those of any political despotism.
Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958)
Ever felt like you’re trapped in a meaningless job or rat race? Well, if it’s any consolation you’re certainly not alone. Research on attitudes of employees to work consistently reveals patterns of disillusion, powerlessness, insecurity, stress, and poor income. Despite the UK having the longest average working hours in Europe, it has one of the lowest levels of productivity. See: www.anxietyculture.com/workhellprt.htm.
In addition, since the 1980s, the mass deployment of casualised labour, privatisation of public services and implementation of anti-union legislation has further forced down wages and led to worsening working conditions for the majority. The converse symmetry of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has closely paralleled these trends.
Like it or not, most of us have no choice but to sell our labour in order to earn a living – that is, we are wage slaves. As workers, we are only remunerated for a fraction of our true worth, with the surplus value of our labours extracted by the owners of the means of production in the form of profit. Profit levels are maintained only by the owners paying workers as little as possible. Hence, since the birth of the industrial revolution, a fundamental conflict of interest has existed. To put this in more concrete terms, consider the following:
- In the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the world, 5 of the top 10 were members of the Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart. (Forbes 2004)
- The average annual pay for a cashier at Wal-Mart is $14,000, $1,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. (Wal-Mart Watch 2005)
- Michael Eisener, CEO of Disney, makes $9,783 an hour compared with a Haitian worker who stitches Disney products for 28 cents an hour. (K. Viner, The Guardian 2000)
Corporations, the dominant transnational bodies which form the mainstay of the modern global economy, are motivated in the final analysis by two priorities. The first is the need to make profit; the second is the need to increase market share and expand. These imperatives are succinctly summed up in Coca Cola’s annual report of 1993:
All of us in the Coca-Cola family wake up each morning knowing that every single one of the world’s 5.6 billion people will get thirsty that day…. If we make it impossible for these people to escape Coca-Cola…then we assure our future success for many years to come. Doing anything else is not an option.
In placing the profit motive above all else, it is easy to see why, in a competitive market economy, humanitarian and ecological concerns take a back seat, and why poverty, imperialism and environmental degradation are the accepted norm. But another side effect of this dynamic is the immense waste of our productive and creative potential to benefit all of humanity.
In Work, Buy, Consume, Die! we cited how corporate profits are realised via the deliberate and concerted manufacture of artificial consumer need. Consider the huge amounts of labour time deployed in the various processes that are integral to this – from extraction to marketing to disposal. Think how many are engaged in jobs which involve selling us crap we neither need nor want. Look at the endless tiers of bureaucracy and management that are the norm in most large organisations. Think of the colossal quantities of labour time invested in preparing for and conducting war, or the numbers employ-ed to tinker with the volatile financial markets. Then consider the massive state machinery that propagates, enforces, and props up the whole system. You don’t need an intricate understanding of Marx’s theory of alienation to realise that most jobs are pointless – serving no other purpose than making someone, somewhere, very rich.
George Bernard Shaw predicted that by the year 2000 we’d all be working a two day week, but in stark contrast, a Labour Force Survey showed that working hours for full timers in the UK have actually increased in the last 20 years. Long working hours and so-called high performance management techniques have merely given rise to burgeoning stress levels. A 2002 study in the British Medical Journal found that those with stressful jobs are twice as likely to die from heart disease. Reflecting the prevalence of unsafe working conditions, a UN report from the same year revealed that work kills more than war or, for that matter, alcohol and drugs. And it’s getting worse; earlier this year, the Health and Safety Executive reported an 11% rise in workplace related fatalities in 2006-7.
To further rub salt into the wounds, capitalism disproportionately rewards those who stoke the fires of economic growth for their own selfish gain, compared to those who ply their trade to benefit the community. As top CEOs command salaries of over £2.5 million a year, care workers barely get paid the minimum wage. The wealth gap in Britain is bigger now than it has been for 40 years and, as the lives of the ultra-rich grow ever more opulent, there is scant evidence of any trickle down effect. Internationally, the picture is even bleaker. As extensive sweatshop labour delivers huge returns for the global fashion and grocery industries, workers on the receiving end exist in squalor, denied even the most basic pay and conditions.
Via the deliberate and calculated misdirection of productive forces, the deaths of millions can be directly attributed to global capital. In a world of lightning quick communications and breathtaking technologies, some 24,000 starve every day when, as Jean Ziegler of the UN pointed out, “world agriculture could feed the population twice over, at its current level of productivity”. But feeding the poor is simply not profitable, and with unfettered market forces and financial speculation massively inflating global energy and food prices, more and more go hungry. And for what? This entire sham functions for no other reason than to feed the fortunes of the corporate and political oligarchs who lord it up at our expense. And whilst we remain inescapably shackled to the profit/power discourse, our relative and actual enslavement will continue – however many courses of therapy (retail or otherwise) we endure to relieve the pain.
But it could all be so different.
So what is the solution? Well, what we clearly don’t need is another manual on downshifting, or a repackaged, fluffier brand of capitalism, for it is the entire barbaric system, driven by profit, maintained by power, that is rotten to the core. If we really want a more sustainable, just and contented world, one where hunger, war and want are consigned to history, libertarian socialism is the only practical solution. Power needs to be wrestled back from the elites who have constructed the whole world economy to serve their own narrow interests. A system of popular direct democracy is required to restore power and decision making to the people, and productive forces based on co-operative mutual aid need to be garnered towards fulfilling the needs and wants of our communities as a whole. This would mean less work, less waste, better social relationships and, with the judicious use of technology, much more time to enjoy ourselves.
Such a radical prescription for change may seem utopian and motivated by higher civilised aspirations, but even our most fervent detractors cannot deny that continuing as we are is simply not an option. Rather, the unrealistic ones are those advocating that we proceed along the same path or, alternatively, submit to the tyranny of yet another “socialist” dictatorship.