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The Price of Everything

One aspect of capitalism's spreading tentacles which Marx correctly predicted was the way in which the money system has constantly expanded to take over areas of life that were previously free of that rationing. Things that had been taken freely without question start to be priced. Even the most minute details of our daily progress through existence are turned into commodities, items to be bought and sold at a profit for those who own and control the productive resources of the planet.

New Age dreamers get excited if one out of a thousand predictions made by some old Nostradamus type charlatan happens to accidentally come true. Karl Marx, on the other hand, used the ultimately hardheaded, scientific, rational approach to prediction. Looking at the material, economic and social forces developing around him, he saw the trends that existed and where they were leading. He predicted that if capitalism were allowed to continue as a global social system, things would get worse for the majority of people. And those predictions have proved right time and again.

The proportion of people across the world who starve to death in the face of plenty is today higher, not lower, than a hundred years ago. The gap between rich and poor has grown wider over the past decades, even in so-called modern countries like Britain. Mergers grow larger, monopoly increases, and both absolute and relative poverty expands globally. Individual despair and depression is worse than a hundred years ago. Social conflict, repression and violence across the world are both more brutal and more inescapably sophisticated than ever before. Exploitation, in the widest sense, has even become taken for granted.

Nothing for free
Was it not once a common saying, "as free as the air we breathe or the water we drink"? Now water has become one of the most significant of household bills, and even a point of controversy as the authorities recently acknowledged that the water “companies” might be “overcharging” for it. Charging for water is quite unavoidable, within the warped logic of the capitalist system. To get water from its natural sources into the glass on your kitchen table does involve work, measured in hundreds of person-hours. It can be mathematically quantified. The customer pays a sum of cash reflecting the value which effort has embodied in the product, then the manufacturing company which controls the process can make a profit and hence expand its capital, by paying salaries to those who have done that work, and holding on to the surplus. That surplus is the difference between the wealth created by those workers and the smaller value, paid as salaries or wages, on which they struggle to survive.

In fact, from the point of view of capitalism, anything that is free is an abhorrent aberration to be corrected as urgently as possible, if any essential items of consumption are not charged in this way (whether because their cost is being underwritten by government or other subsidies, or because it has just been overlooked). For decades, if you went into a cafe for your breakfast, there would be those big, round, red plastic tomatoes on each table, from which you could squirt a dollop of watered-down tomato ketchup which came served with a disgusting sound, if there was any left. Then, with greater modern style and sophistication, Heinz 57's monopoly of the market allowed them product-placement advantage in which their little angular bottles could be found on the tables of cafes and even cheaper restaurants, for the free and liberal use of their customers. Of course, nothing in capitalism is free, and the cost of such extras would have been built into the prices charged for meals. But at least there was some individual leeway as to how much of the sauce each individual could add to the side of their plate if they desired. Now the almost universal norm in such places is those absurd tiny, individual sachets of ketchup and other condiments.

Did their designer have any awareness that one such sachet would be enough only to adorn a pea? So you need to use at least three or four for a plate of chips, and the fact that they are almost impossible to open means frustration, mess and a rapidly congealing plate of chips. The ratio of plastic to sauce is such that the 10p generally charged to the customer is probably more than half for the packaging – which, under the previous system did not even exist for individual portions. This, although it seems a trivial example, sums up perfectly how capitalism expands its control over our lives in a negative way, with every year it is allowed to continue. Individual consumption in that detail has become more precisely controlled, monitored and charged. A new and pointless product has been created. Profits have been increased. And the net effect to its consumer? Inconvenience, complete lack of dignity and an extra bill at the end.

Competition time, suckers
The telecommunications industry is now one of the biggest and most rapidly growing sectors of the worldwide economy. It has proved to be an almost inexhaustible source of “new product” creation, with needs that people never realised they had mysteriously emerging, shrink-wrapped, from Soho advertising agency back-doors to be introduced as marvels to those who are going to suffer from them and pay for the privilege. Do you recall a time when concert promoters were keen to sell tickets and would therefore publicise their contact-numbers, so that you could phone up and buy your supply? It has now become common for them to use premium rate numbers, so that the thousands of keen punters, if they want to even find out more details of the event in question, must pay not only the phone operators via their phone bills, but a substantial additional fee incorporated in the higher call charge to . . . none other than the promoters themselves!

Cheap capitalist tricks

The audacity of this is breathtaking. I am willing to sell you a ticket to my show. And if you pay me a pound, I might tell you when and where it is. For another pound, I'll tell you how you can get a ticket. And when I do, and you have your thirty pounds ready for that ticket, there will be a special “buying” fee, which we call a booking cost, of another two pounds! The Rolling Stones made more money than any other band from touring during the 1990s, sharing a staggering £470 million, but you can be sure that their promoters did not go away empty-handed. Of course, the extra costs of employing people to actually sell the tickets and so on would have been allowed for in the ticket price previously. But what is happening here is a crude and exploitative bit of nasty psychological manipulation. If the tickets were advertised at £50 it might sound off-putting, so, the logic goes, these scum punters will be more likely to go for it if we chip away at them for the money bit by bit.

The exploitation of this cheap psychological manipulation is all the more sickening when used against the young and naive, and yet here it has become so taken for granted that the presenters of children's television who supervise these scams on Saturday mornings in particular can scarcely sometimes suppress their own smug chuckles with each other, as they announce the latest absurd competition. The technique, which has become popular throughout the week on TV and is used even with adults, is to have people phone in the answer to a multiple-choice question, in the hope of winning a prize.

The cheap and transparent trick they use is to make the question stupidly easy. All but one of the multiple-choice answers are meant to be patently silly. The singer Tom Jones comes from a) Dolphins b) Wales c) China? The object of this is not in the humour of those silly options, however much that might be milked for laughs. It is to maximise the instant profit of tens or even hundreds of thousands which each of these numerous “competitions” creates so easily. Foolish viewers spot that they know the answer, and rush to phone and claim their prize, paying premium rates for the call (shared between the programme makers and their pimps at BT), conveniently forgetting that if they found the answer so obvious to this stupid question, so will millions of others.

CLIFFORD SLAPPER