1980s >> 1985 >> no-972-august-1985

Everyday illusions

There are all sorts of illusions in the world: the sun “rising” and “setting”; railroad tracks “converging” in the distance; the horizon “descending” before our eyes as though within our approach. There are scientific explanations for these phenomena, with which not even true believers in the fantastic can quarrel. There is nothing to be gained by anyone, today, in idly debating the validity of the universally-accepted explanations. But those are illusions that have to do with the realm of physics and a general acceptance of physical, material facts in no way threatens capitalism’s institutions. Even when they lay bare the nonsense taught by religion there is no acknowledgement of conflict since the purveyors of metaphysics have long since become adept at dividing the mind into watertight compartments — one for reality, the other for fantasy. Since there is no contact between the ideas in these hermetically-sealed chambers there is no conflict.

When it comes to the illusions generated by the socio-economic system operating throughout the world today, even if in somewhat varying forms, it is a horse of a different colour. Let alone finding those who may agree that some things are not what they seem, there is scant interest in even discussing the matter. For example, consider the widely held belief that capitalism is a consumer-oriented social system. Such an assessment might be understandable when one contemplates the sheer weight of hucksterism that assaults us in the print and broadcast media. There is certainly an illusion created there — an illusion of a population basking in a sort of equality of spendability. The hawking is directed at everybody and anybody who will look and/or listen, thereby bolstering the generally-held theory of the mass of the population — the working class — that “my money is as good as theirs; the only difference is that they have more of it”.

And indeed, there is nothing printed on coinage or even on personal cheques to indicate the class status of any individual possessor. The fact that the money held by the overwhelming bulk of the population is received as payment for labour time expended in the interests of the capitalist class is not noted on bills or coin. In fact, the very currency and change swapped at the bank for their employers’ cheques might very well have graced the wallets of their employers on previous occasions — as may well be the case in the future. Coin-of-the-realm seems to make everybody equal since virtually nobody avoids handling it throughout most of their lives. To be sure, some are more equal than most.

To grasp the mechanics, the intrinsic blueprint, of capitalism it will be helpful to temporarily shut ears and eyes to the sales pitches and try to think of oneself as not simply an individual but as a unit of an economic class. If you must restrict your purchases to the total income from wages or salaries, you are a member of the working class and the quality, as well as the quantity, of the goods and services available is governed by that station in life.

On the other hand, consider the spendability of the employers of labour — those who own the manufacturing, processing and distributing operations and so on. Members of that stratum frequently function in managerial posts and draw fat salaries but their income derives basically from profits and dividends. In fact, salaries at bloated levels could actually be unprofitable to the recipient because of tax brackets and top executives often take much of their income in company shares. Anyway, the entire capitalist class represents hardly more than ten per cent of the population so their spendable income, whatever may be the extent of their personal acquisition, would hardly make a dent in the net profits of their class after everything else that makes up surplus value has been accounted for. By far the greater part of their holdings are tied up in investments — certificates of ownership in wealth-producing property.

Palpably, then, something is wrong with that widely held assessment that capitalism is a consumer-oriented society. It goes without saying, of course, that individual capitalists may be concerned first and foremost with the life style and status that their investments can bring them. They do not pursue their careers as tycoons out of any spirit of loyalty to a cause or even to altruistic motivation — as for example, providing employment for the working class. To be sure, they sometimes go in strongly for philanthropy but that is a necessary activity in the business sense. It not only helps on that day of reckoning with their Internal Revenue Service “partners”. [1]  It also serves as a stimulus to their particular endeavours by gilding possibly-tarnished reputations. But this is all neither here nor there in regard to the purpose — the unwritten law — of the capitalist system of production.

Capitalism is a producer, rather than a consumer-oriented, social system; the value of the commodities needed in production exceeds the total value of consumer commodities. Even in that segment of industry which involves itself with the production of consumer goods and services the emphasis has to be on continuous production — production for the sake of more production for profit. Much, if not most, of surplus value must be earmarked as capital (wealth used to create more wealth with view to profit through exploitation of labour). Think of the maw of a voracious animal into which everything from raw material to finished goods are shovelled. That is capitalism. Those who do the gathering, the manufacturing, processing and stuffing of the fodder into that maw are. of course, paid for their efforts according to the value of their particular types of mental and physical abilities. And the monster scatters varying amounts of wealth on those who own or control the land, the mines, the mills and all of the other workplaces. So everybody concerned with keeping that beast well fed is allegedly happy.

But there are many problems associated with this mode of production not the least of which is the fact that every so often the monster’s stomach gets loaded to the gills — it is compelled to go on a diet.

There follows, naturally, a cut-back in employment and the government is forced to issue new and increasing figures on unemployment. Now if capitalism were a consumer-oriented system of society significant unemployment would be regarded by working people as a boon rather than something to be dreaded. After all. the pressing problem in enforced idleness is not the lack of work in itself but rather the lack of money with which to purchase needed commodities and pay the bills. The capitalists manage to live on in the style to which they have grown accustomed whether boom times or slack times prevail. Their loot will not run out simply because of recession or even depression — although it occasionally does vanish in the wake of unfortunate investments on Wall Street. But the reserves that workers can stash away are soon enough used up; even the inadequate unemployment insurance lasts only so long and before they know it welfare and the soup kitchens beckon.

But how quickly one forgets previous hardships and misery when new ones occur. What is the quickest way to forget the pain of a toe that has been just mashed by a boulder? Simply slam a door on a finger. What was so wonderful about those jobs, anyway? The literature of the periods of capitalist boom-time is filled with well-documented articles dealing with the mental and physical crippling of workers in all sorts of industries. The drive is, and must be, to pump surplus value from the working class at the greatest possible rates. To expect or urge that capitalism could be made to operate efficiently in any other way is to believe in the second coming (or the first one!). For woe betide any capitalist industry that instructs its workers to “take it easy”. Its competition will soon enough put it out of business.

And so, when capitalism’s industries boom, the monster beams with joy at the immensity of the shovellings that go into its maw. And the punch-drunk workers drag themselves to their jobs to be prodded — even spied on — by supervisory and security fellow workers — who are also prodded and spied on by their own managements — from sun-up to sun-down, in return for the pay needed to meet the notes and buy the groceries and whatever. Anyone who believes that old wives’ tale about hard work never hurting anybody should take a closer look at the lined and wrinkled faces, the gnarled hands, of their fellow workers while on the way to and from capitalism’s workplaces and for that matter, at themselves in the mirror.

So the intrinsic purpose of capitalism is by no means the satisfaction of personal consumption needs of the members of the populations. Granted that those with sufficient loot can possess luxuries beyond the wildest dreams of Oriental potentates. Granted even that the working class, generally. must be able to purchase goods and services in sufficient quantity and quality to enable them to function adequately as employees. But that is all a matter of fall-out from the system. Notwithstanding the impassioned pleas of the hucksters to buy their merchandise rather than their competitors’, despite the illusion of a veritable cornucopia of products lining the shelves and storage spaces of our uptown, downtown, and suburban shopping malls and emporiums, generally, the spending by the working class must be limited by the extent of their “gainful” earnings. And the continuous turnover in merchant entrepreneurism — particularly among the smaller ones — offers mute testimony to that fact.

As for the capitalists, they are so relatively few in number that goods and services of high quality — including expensive and exclusive items of luxury — must be produced in quantities far less than the potential. To be sure, much of the pleasure the wealthy feel in their possessions lies in their knowledge that most of their fellow men and women must make do with comparatively little.

Socialism will be, definitely, a consumer-oriented social system. It is unlikely that anything like ostentatious items of wealth will be produced. In a classless society it is difficult to imagine anybody wanting to outshine anybody else in personal acquisitions. Especially when the very concept of “value” will not exist, since goods and services will be produced only for use and consequently, because they will not be exchanged on a market, will neither need nor possess value.

On the other hand, the enormous wealth and energy now being expended on producing cheaply made — even shoddy — commodities for the working class will be channelled in more purposeful ways. According to the rationale of capitalism, the commodities that make up the standards of the working class must be produced ever more cheaply — and as shoddily — as is possible. Minimise labour costs and maximise surplus value. That is the logic — the philosophy — of capitalist production.

Harry Morrison
WSPUS (Boston)