Home > political-economy, shorter work time > How does capitalism end? (Part 2, or, will we always have Paris?)

How does capitalism end? (Part 2, or, will we always have Paris?)

Continued from here

There have been volumes written on why Marx came to a different set of conclusions about the future of capitalism than economists, but this is no place to open that discussion.

It would bore all of us to tears, and succeed only in confusing matters of not the least bit importance to the present subject: namely, “How does capitalism end.”

Moreover, we are not sure we understand all of Marx’s theory, and are entirely too lazy to bother testing this misgiving by actually reading everything the guy wrote, and the thousands of pages of material assembled for and against his arguments by the famous and the obscure among us who have.

We think we do grasp, however, the nub of his argument: Capitalism was abolishing work!

No one set out to abolish work. In fact, every capitalist undertaking was only begun with the idea of expanding the market share for some particular capitalist and his/her firm. But, the result of millions of small incremental technical changes in the way things were being produced were accumulating into an ever accelerating reduction in the time society needed to produce everything it consumed.

Eventually, if things continued to progress the way they had been up until Marx’s time, work itself would become entirely optional, and mankind would be freed from the era of scarcity.

Good stuff, huh?

There was/is, as you can imagine, a slight problem with this rosy prediction: Society was organized along completely different principles.

We will get to this little problem, but first, a short note.


An Aside: Leave Paris Hilton out of this discussion


Paris Hilton: We wish we had her parents

(We can ignore, for the remainder of this piece, members of the idle classes, like Paris Hilton, who seems to consume in great excess despite having never performed the slightest bit of work in her life, and who would not know what work was were it not for observing the people around her who neglect their own families to satisfy her every whim. And, please! Let’s not judge Paris too harshly, since we would have jumped at the opportunity to take her place in the Hilton nursery crib had chance offered us such opportunity. Personally, we mourn the fact we got stuck with our own decidedly impecunious parents, and will hold their lack of skills at accumulating more wealth than God against them until the day we die!)


So, what was the problem with Marx’s rosy prediction?

Heretofore, and at present, our access to the means of life has been measured more or less by the amount of work we performed – whether you provided yourself with the things you needed directly, through your labor on a small family farm, or, as most of us do today, indirectly through wage work.

Capitalism was upsetting the applecart on this entire arrangement: Even as it was delivering more material goods through improvements in productivity, it was shedding the demand for workers to produce this greater material wealth.

All of this was relative, of course.

Even as capitalism was shedding jobs, it was creating new ones in industries unheard of in earlier times – railroads, oil, automobiles, etc.

But, eventually, if Marx was right, this relative gain in new jobs would go negative – more jobs lost than created; and, after that, would turn into an absolute loss of  jobs.

You can imagine what might happen once capital began shedding jobs faster than it was creating them, but, just to be a stickler on this fact, we will remind you: The Great Depression!

That’s right, some time around the Great Depression work started to get permanently scarce:

The decade of the 1930s saw the Great Depression in the United States and many other countries. In 1929, the U.S. unemployment rate averaged 3%. In 1933, 25% of all American workers and 37% of all nonfarm workers were unemployed. In Cleveland, Ohio, the unemployment rate was 60%; in Toledo, Ohio, 80%. Unemployment in Canada reached 27% at the depth of the Depression in 1933. In some towns and cities in the north east of England, unemployment reached as high as 70%. In Germany the unemployment rate reached nearly 25% in 1932. One Soviet trading corporation in New York averaged 350 applications a day from Americans seeking jobs in the Soviet Union. There were two million homeless people migrating across the United States. One Arkansas man walked 900 miles looking for work.

(Economists, who are about as reliable in these matters as astrologists are at predicting your next love mate – perhaps less – tend to disagree on this cause for the Great Depression, and that is fine; since if they did agree on it, that would be prima facie evidence that Marx was not only wrong, but clinically insane to boot.)

Suffice it to say, there was an alternative to this massive explosion of unemployment: hours of work could have been reduced as was proposed by many writers, and which Tom Walker has pointed out was even proposed by Lord John Maynard Keynes, for whom the policies of permanent economic expansion have been named generically in the United States.

But this is all beside the point, since the policies of economic expansion were adopted, and, for the next seven decades or so, has been the official economic mainstream of such discourse.

Which is to say, government around the world decided to kill money – inflate prices – rather than reduce hours of work for the vast majority of people.

During the seven decades since the Great Depression, these policies have allowed the formation of what likely would not have been possible in the absence of such government intervention: a massive body of individuals who are completely superfluous to real economic activity, but who, nevertheless, receive wages for entirely unproductive, and economically unnecessary work, and who, only through this unproductive and economically unnecessary work gain access to the means of life – food, clothing, shelter, etc.

Left to its own devices, capital would have gradually displaced the great bulk of its workforce from work, forcing society to address this displacement by reducing hours of work in proportion to compensate – trading unemployment for free disposable time – as it had for about a century prior to the Great Depression.

This, however, was not to be.

Instead, the post-war period saw the proliferation of jobs like motivational guru, economist, campaign manager, financial speculator, yoga instructor, daycare attendant, real estate agent, lawyer, interior decorator, manicurist, project manager, wedding planner, and a host of other occupations having in common only that they do not produce anything real, yet offer millions of otherwise unemployable persons a chance to pick up a paycheck.

And, this does not even begin to cover the millions more in prisons, working for the DMV, or, sailing aircraft carriers around the Persian Gulf.

This incredibly massive body of working people, existing in every country, and, in particular, in the most advanced and productive countries, owe their circumstances in every real sense to the very policies which are collapsing, and have collapsed, in our present crisis.

It is here, then, that we can begin to sketch out what the death of capitalism looks like – understanding, in the course of this essay, that we are not simply talking about the death of capitalism, but the death of work itself, and, of destitution, the struggle for necessities, and all the old filthy business…” that accompanies it.

To be continued

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