Profit, Wages, and the Human Good

In his work What is Property? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declares that “property is theft.”[1] In particular, Proudhon has in mind the products of labor, which, under capitalism, the worker produces but does not own. Nor can she afford to buy them, Proudhon says, “Because the right of increase does not permit these things to be sold at the cost-price, which is all that laborers can afford to pay.”[2]

In a capitalist system, the means of production (i.e., land, factories, tools and machinery, as well as stocks and bonds, etc.) are privately owned in order to maximize profit (and these privately owned means of production are what we refer to as “private property”). Workers are hired to produce with these means of production commodities that can be sold on the market. In order to ensure profit, these products must be sold for more than the cost of producing them. Furthermore, most of this consequent surplus value does not go to the workers but rather to those who own the means of production. A fraction of surplus value is then returned to the workers in the form of wage.

What this means is that, quite literally, the value produced in the workers’ labor is stolen from them and only partially returned (an objection which, as it happens, sounds rather similar to capitalist anti-taxation arguments). And the owners have a vested interest in keeping the workers’ wages as low as possible, so that profit is maximized as much as possible. As Milton Friedman insists, businesses have no social responsibility whatsoever other than the maximization of profit.[3]

Karl Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

For [political economy], therefore, the worker’s needs are but the one need – to maintain him while he is working insofar as may be necessary to prevent the race of laborers from dying out. The wages of labor have thus exactly the same significance as the maintenance and servicing of any other productive instrument . . . Wages, therefore, belong to capital’s and the capitalist’s necessary costs, and must not exceed the bounds of this necessity.[4]

In other words, wages, according to Marx, are literally a maintenance fee.

Human beings are seen (whether implicitly or explicitly) solely in terms of potential profit. Unemployed persons, then, are not producing profit and therefore needn’t be afforded the maintenance fees of wages. Capitalism, in other words, annihilates the possibility of thinking of persons or things as intrinsically valuable – all value is externalized and measured against capital, which is the sole and absolute measure of value.

This is readily apparent when we consider the fact that we must purchase the things that keep us alive (i.e., food, shelter, healthcare, etc.) – which is to say that our very lives are commodities to be purchased. And the only way that we can afford to do this – speaking in the hypothetical absence of a welfare state, which is continually derided as “socialist” and therefore fundamentally anti-capitalist – is if we have jobs, which is to say if we are producing value. And “value,” of course, means capital. If I am not profitable to the capitalist, then I have no standing in relation to capital, the absolute measure of value. And, therefore, quite literally, I have no value and do not “deserve” food, shelter, healthcare, etc. Marx is once again helpful on this issue: “The worker exists as a worker only when he exists for himself as capital; and he exists as capital only when some capital exists for him. The existence of capital is his existence; his life[.]”[5]

What is often forgotten, it seems, is that it was anarchists, socialists, and other labor activists who were fighting against capitalists in favor of such basic worker protections as an eight-hour day, forty-hour week, minimum wage, and child labor laws. All of these cut into profits, and, furthermore, in the case of unskilled labor, if one worker demands a living wage, the capitalist can fire the worker and have a new one, who is willing to work for low wages, hired and trained by the end of the day. Workers are utterly expendable and, as human beings, have no value in and of themselves. Their value is literally a question of how much profit they bring to the capitalists.

On its own, capitalism ignores externalities, such as damage to the environment or the implications for the well-being of society. Frans de Waal points out another telling quotation from Milton Friedman, who says, “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”[6]

As social creatures, our well-being as individuals directly correlates to the well-being of the whole. We are not atomistic individuals who make totally free, totally isolated market choices, which have no effect on society as a whole (an assumption upon which capitalism, as a product of Enlightenment thought, rests). Individual choices have implications for society at large. It’s no mystery why societies in which everyone has access to the basic necessities of food, healthcare, and education are generally happier, healthier, and safer.

I’m not talking about utopia. I’m not saying all our problems will be solved if we just tax the rich a little more and redistribute wealth more equally. I’m talking about how to make things better. Hell, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that healthy, happy, and safe workers are better workers. True, ensuring this might cost more in the short-term, but if capitalism were capable of considering long-term impacts – which, granted, I don’t really think it is or ever will be – then increased worker protection and social welfare would be a no-brainer. To be sure, this is an argument for what I take to be a relatively morally neutral “Enlightened Self-Interest” (i.e., I do what’s good for others because it is also what’s good for me), but it’s a hell of a lot better than the straightforward egoism of free market capitalism.

Ann Jones recently published an article in which she praises the social-democratic system of Norway. Now, again, I’m no social democrat (I’m much more strongly anti-capitalist than that), but I do think that Jones makes some important points regarding the superiority of a system that protects more than just the profitability of corporations. She writes, for example:

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams—to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Putting aside the question of whether and to what extent this truly happens in Norway (I’m not the one to ask), Jones is making a point here that I have often tried to make before: The world needs folks who are doing what they are passionate about. Why? Well, for one thing, there is the Enlightened Self-Interest argument that folks who are passionate about what they are doing will obviously do better than folks who are not, and that excellent work will benefit society as a whole.

Another angle on this is that it helps reaffirm the inherent value of work. Socialism is often misunderstood as the position that it doesn’t matter how much work you do, you should still be paid the same at the end of the day. Putting aside the fact that the presence of any form of monetary remuneration is altogether rejected by many socialists, this is not quite the argument.

Marx, for example, made a point of arguing that human beings need meaningful labor, but that capitalism denies most of us this basic human good – something like 80% of Americans hate their jobs – in the name of greater circulation of cheap commodities (implying that “freedom” is fundamentally “freedom to consume”). Labor has become totally instrumentalized – a mere means to the end of having food to eat. Socialism, then, wants to reclaim the inherent value and goodness of labor.

For some socialists, such as communists, this may indeed mean the total abolition of any and all forms of currency and remuneration. For others, such as collectivists, a labor theory of value (i.e., the value of a product is determined on the basis of the labor required to make it) would guide a labor note system, wherein remuneration would be relative to one’s work, but with the crucial difference from capitalist forms of remuneration that the inherent value of life and labor would be affirmed such that even those who do less skilled or less dangerous forms of work would have their needs met just because they are human beings and as such do not need to “earn” the “right” to live.

The capitalist threat of destitution may ensure that most of us work, but work at what? Convincing people to buy cheap clothes they don’t need made by slave children in Bangladesh? Knowingly selling electronics – also made by slaves – that are intended to break in three years to ensure the next model sells? Selling fast food products that are ridiculously unhealthy? What social goods are being promoted with these kinds of jobs? And yet, these are the kinds of jobs that low-wage workers typically have. Do we really need to make sure this kind of labor endures? Just because consumers have been manipulated by advertisements into providing “demand” for these “services”?

Individual persons do not exist in vacuums and neither, by extension, do their market choices. We need to recognize ourselves as intimately bound up with the social whole. Noam Chomsky enquires after the human good in his most recent publication, and ultimately argues that a form of libertarian socialism is the answer. I am inclined to agree, but I do not claim to know. I’m not interested in drawing up blueprints for the perfect society of the future. I’m interested in how well we look after each other right now, and I have to say, free market capitalism seems to me to be one of the worst ways of doing so.

As I’ve argued before, capitalism is inherently and necessarily plutocratic, and therefore anti-democratic by its very nature. Socialism, on the other hand, is not only the position that we need democracy, but that democracy should go all the way down into the workplace, where the wheels of society truly turn. Accordingly, if we want democracy, we need socialism.


 

Notes

[1] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, from What is Property?, in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), edited by Robert Graham, (Montreal/New York/London: Black Rose Books, 2005), 34.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Profit,” The New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1970, available from: http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html.

[4] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1988), 86.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, (Three Rivers Press: New York, 2009), 38.

If We Want Democracy, We Need Socialism

In my experience, the basic difference between capitalism and socialism is often missed. Capitalism, it is thought, represents free markets, consumer choice, personal liberty, etc. And socialism represents “big government,” state intervention, and a utilitarian sacrifice of the individual in favor of the “greater good.”

At bottom, however, the distinction is much simpler: It comes down to the question of who owns the means of production. Capitalists advocate private ownership of the means of production, whereas socialists advocate collective ownership. As I argued in the previous post, collective ownership is democratic and private ownership is plutocratic.

Some time ago, I offered an overview of the Marxian critique of alienated labor and I think it gets to the heart of this issue. Private ownership of the means of production goes like this: A capitalist, seeking to make profit, purchases a factory and the equipment necessary to make a product which can then be sold in the marketplace. The capitalist then hires workers to come in and use this equipment to make said product. The capitalist repays the workers in the form of wages, but, in order to ensure the maximum amount of profit possible, he [the capitalist] drives the workers’ wages down as much as possible so that he can extract the surplus value of their labor and keep it as profit. This is what we call exploitation.

The long and short of it is that the workers are selling themselves to the capitalist in exchange for wages, which will then (hopefully) allow the worker to purchase life’s basic necessities (i.e., food, shelter, healthcare, etc.) on the marketplace. But to say that one’s basic necessities must be purchased is to say that one’s freedom must be purchased. It is after all undeniable that someone who has good food, is healthy and well-educated has greater access to opportunity than someone who does not.

The private ownership of the means of production, in other words, turns everything — including human lives — into a commodity. It is said that workers are free, but of what does this freedom consist? The freedom to sell oneself to this capitalist or that one? Either way, one can expect low wages, for not only does the capitalist seek profit for himself, but must also be competing with other companies, which means products must be sold at the lowest price possible (thereby cutting into the workers’ wages even more) and strategically planned obsolescence ensures that consumers will continue to purchase new products in the years to come.

All the while, Marx argues, the worker is alienated from herself, from her labor, from the product of her labor, and from her fellow workers, all of which have been turned into commodities. Contrary to popular belief, socialists maintain that human beings need meaningful work, which capitalism all too often denies us. We are forced to work mindless, meaningless jobs, creating and selling worthless, mass produced products, and competing with our fellow workers to make sure that, if anyone is going to be hungry tonight, it will not be me. It is therefore hardly surprising that we need external incentives to work these jobs!

What we need instead, I argue, is a world in which people can freely choose work that is meaningful to them without having to worry about whether or not it will put bread on the table. And who can do better work in any given field than someone who is doing it because they are truly passionate about it? (It is true that this model would likely result in the demise of the fast food industry, but something tells me we will find the strength to carry on.)[1]

And here we find another fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism: individualism versus social holism. Socialists maintain that human beings are always and already social creatures. The cinematic, atomized, asocial, rugged individual is, according to this view, simply a fiction. This is important because it means that things are better for everyone involved when everyone has access to life’s basic necessities (crime rates, for example, drop significantly when everyone has access to food, education, and healthcare).[2] It is not forced “charity”; it is living together as social creatures. And despite the fact that we are indoctrinated from day one with “rugged individualism” and talk of the evils of “human nature,” I think that the evidence overwhelmingly favors social holism.[3]

The common notion, then, that I begin as a “private individual” who can “freely choose” to enter into contracts with other private individuals to exchange goods and services is, I think, deeply flawed. On this line of thinking, social interaction is nothing more than enlightened self-interest, rather than a fundamental part of being human. And if this individualist model is correct, it is easy to see why I should think I have no necessary responsibility to my fellow human beings.

And this detached individualism is precisely what capitalism requires. Altruism does not maximize profits — not directly, at least. Maximization of profit is, after all, the single and fundamental law of capitalism. And whether it is altruism or egoism that best serves this purpose seems to be utterly irrelevant. So while it is true that the “free market” may at times decide to favor the well-being of the people, it is only insofar as this course of action can be shown to be the most profitable. Placing inherent value in anything — including human beings — other than profit is fundamentally anti-capitalist. I see no way around this conclusion.

It is also commonly objected that the radical egalitarianism of socialism forces equality upon society. But exactly what unnatural equality is being enforced by ensuring that everyone has access to life’s basic necessities? Can one be more or less equal in regard to needing food? It seems to me that this is to say that human beings are not inherently valuable. After all, how can we affirm the inherent value of human life while requiring that one “earn” the things required to sustain said life? If we are not naturally equal in our deserving access to these necessities, we are not naturally equal in value as persons.

This is not to say that “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.” Food is not a trophy. And to say that ensuring that all have access to life’s basic necessities is to “force equality” seems to be tantamount to affirming Social Darwinism (i.e., the strong, naturally unequal insofar as they are able to easily access life’s necessities, and bearing no responsibility to the weak, will succeed, while the weak, naturally unequal insofar as they are unable to easily access life’s necessities (whether through physical or mental disabilities, socioeconomic situation, etc.) will perish or be “weeded out”).

In the end, I see capitalism as deeply immoral. And while individual cases of its success may be presented (I do not deny that capitalism works perfectly well for some people — and not just greedy schmucks, but some honest, hardworking folks as well), an examination of the philosophical ideas that underpin capitalism demonstrates (quite conclusively, in my view) that the harms far outweigh any benefits. To reject capitalism is not to reject liberty and free choice, but instead exploitation, hierarchy, and otherwise anti-social, anti-democratic values.

Contrary to popular belief, socialism can offer a morally legitimate alternative. Personally, I do not advocate “state socialism,” but rather libertarian socialism, for I believe that worker-ownership of the means of production should mean just that — worker-ownership, not state ownership. In fact, “state socialism” is essentially capitalistic, in my view, insofar as the means of production are privately owned by a single entity (i.e., the state).

If we want democracy, we need socialism — libertarian socialism to be precise.

For further reading on contemporary experiments in collective ownership, check out Mondragon and Marinaleda.


 

[1] I, for example, am currently pursuing a career in professional philosophy. I am fully aware of the fact that this is a risky endeavor, but I would rather take a risk to do something I love and am good at than to simply take a job that I know guarantees a steady paycheck. If this does not work out for me and I am unable to find a job, there are many who will say that it is my own fault for choosing such a difficult profession. In other words, it is my fault for foolishly choosing what I love over what pays well. Apparently I am to submit to the demands of the market first and foremost. Unfortunately, the instrumental rationality of the market places little value in things such as philosophy, and literature, so I suppose I am simply out of luck if my passions and talents lie in the humanities. A free market indeed!

[2] See, for example, this study.

[3] See, for example, the work of Frans de Waal.

Notes On Anarchism: Plutocracy or Democracy

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Capitalism is antithetical to democracy. The choice between socialism and capitalism is, to my mind, a choice between democracy and effective plutocracy (i.e., rule by the wealthy). Socialism, as the collective ownership of the means of production, implies the most radical form of direct democracy. Under capitalism, on the other hand — particularly as advocated by modern-day libertarians and so-called “anarcho”-capitalists — one votes with one’s dollar, which is to say, the wealthier one is, the more power one has. Money literally is power. Being heard, just like everything else (i.e., safety, healthcare, education, food, shelter, etc.), is a commodity to be purchased in the market place. One is only as free as one can afford. And because capitalism is not meritocratic, as I have argued before, I take this to be a pretty damning problem.

Notes On Anarchism: Earning and Deserving

In capitalist societies, human life is not inherently valued. It is something that must be bought, and in order to afford it, one must sell oneself to the capitalists, prove oneself profitable, and in return will receive wages which will (hopefully) be enough to purchase life’s basic necessities–viz., food, housing, healthcare, etc. When the things that are necessary to survive are conceived as things to be earned, as things which one does not deserve simply in virtue of being human, then human life itself cannot be said to be held as inherently valuable. If it were, the things necessary to sustain this supposedly inherently valuable life would not be a matter of being earned just in case one meets certain conditions. The only inherently valuable thing in a capitalist society is capital. And I have a real problem with any system that values something–anything–above human life.

Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

Apparently, my ongoing–albeit intermittent–“Notes On Anarchism” series has morphed into a way to (attempt to) briefly and succinctly respond to frequently asked questions regarding anarchism (and socialism more generally).

Thus, today I am taking up the annoyingly common objection that, because man (it is always man–I suppose the jury is still out on woman) is inherently evil, socialism (especially libertarian socialism) could never work, because man [sic!] would have to be inherently good. Therefore, it is concluded, the state is necessary and capitalism is our best bet economically.

What I find particularly odd about this objection is that it seems to be essentially saying that, because humans are inherently evil, we should–indeed, we must–build an economic system that encourages greed, selfishness, and the valuing of profit above all else (i.e., capitalism); and that, furthermore, we should give some of these inherently evil people a monopoly of force over the rest of society. If it is true that humans are inherently evil, this hardly seems like a solution.

Secondly, the “inherently evil”-“inherently good” dichotomy is, in my opinion, a red herring. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do people always say to me, “Well, either you believe people are inherently good or you believe that people are inherently evil.” My question is: Why should we assume that people are inherently anything? This thinking strikes me as incredibly reductionistic, and I have addressed it in further detail, spelling out what I take to be serious problems with the idea of “human nature” here.

Now, to be clear, I do believe that empathy and mutual aid are an “inherent” (if we must use that word) aspect of the human species, developed over the course of evolution and without which we would never have survived. I absolutely believe that humans are social creatures and that if anarchy (in the pejorative sense) were to prevail, most of us would probably not run around killing, raping, and pillaging (and if the threat of the state’s use of force is the only thing that prevents you from doing so, I don’t think I want to hang out with you.) There is, to my mind, plenty of good and convincing evidence for all of this. Why, for example, is the lack of empathy (i.e., psychopathy) considered psychologically aberrant? Why is it so damaging for soldiers who experience firsthand the ravages of war? Why do babies who aren’t held enough often become psychopaths? Because we are social creatures!

The principles of “rugged individualism” and Social Darwinism still enjoy a considerable amount of prominence among right-wing politicians, but, quite simply, I think the evidence is completely and utterly lacking that these ideas come anywhere near accurately describing the human species and how we relate to one another. I have written on this in more detail before as well.

So, no, I don’t think people are “inherently good”, but I also don’t think people are “inherently evil.” Such reductionistic categories ignore perfectly good evidence to the contrary, as well as encourage vacuous thinking when approaching social and political problems. (I.e., “There is a lot of crime, which obviously just means that people are inherently evil”, rather than, “There is a lot of crime; why might that be? What social, political, economic, or other forms of power relations might be contributing to that?” To say nothing of asking what the historical evolution is of such ideas as “human nature”, what kinds of social and historical contingencies surrounded and contributed to the development of those ideas, how one’s own social and cultural background might be contributing to one’s adherence to these types of ideas, etc. etc.)

Social and political issues are incredibly complex, and, as is clear to anyone who is actually interested enough to do a minimal investigation into the political philosophies of socialism and anarchism rather than just assaulting us with right-wing talking points (if the reader will forgive a brief lapse into cynicism), anarchism and socialism attempt to address these issues with respect for their complexity. Anarchists do not deny that people do bad things, and that they would continue to do bad things in an anarchist society. However, anarchists also believe that there are many, many ways in which current structures–the state and capitalism chief among them–which serve to exacerbate these problems, often to an extreme degree. Capitalism, for example, must discourage and suppress sentiments of collectivity and communality among the working classes, as such sentiments encourage people to work together for mutual benefit rather than for the profit of their capitalist bosses. It is therefore in no way surprising that Milton Friedman said that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

“Human Nature”?

Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.[1]

It is commonly assumed that “human nature” severely limits our potential for improving our social, political, and economic situation. The concept is used almost exclusively as a negative to counter so-called utopians and radicals. “Human nature,” say the dissenters, will take over without a centralized government (read: monopoly of force), or capitalist economic system, and society will devolve into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, if we must talk about something called human nature, I think we need to take into account all of the scientific evidence—which I take to be pretty convincing—that not only does human existence include a self-interested struggle for survival, but also strong elements of empathy and mutual aid, which are the foundations of our moral thinking. In this case, human nature—if it exists—might not be such a terrible thing.

I would begin, however, by pointing out that if human nature truly is as ultimately selfish and greedy a thing as this argument seems to assume, how are the best preventative actions against this to a) give a few of these selfish and greedy people a monopoly of force over the rest; and b) to construct an economic system in which the one and only goal is the maximization of profit? It seems to be a truism that if the maximization of profit is the singular goal of our economic system, this will result in slavery, exploitation, and abject poverty, as these are quite profitable for the capitalists! And how much worse would these things manifest themselves if the human nature camp were correct! What more could expect? This argument seems to essentially lead to the conclusion that if we can’t beat ’em, we may as well feed ’em. But then again, why would we want to beat them at all? If we are all ultimately bad, evil, corrupt, depraved, or whatever term we choose to use, why would we ever have decided that being bad was, well, bad? Why do the overwhelming majority of moral theories developed by philosophers over the centuries praise selflessness over selfishness? If the human nature camp is right, it seems that this would be akin to praising not breathing over breathing. In other words, it wouldn’t be a moral issue at all!

However, as I suggested at the beginning, I think that the entire concept of “human nature” is incredibly suspect. For one thing, if, for example, states and capitalism (and state capitalism) are necessary to prevent the destruction and chaos that would be wrought by allowing human nature free reign, how did we survive so long before figuring this out? Both Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, and Frans de Waal, in The Age of Empathy, have convincingly argued that we would never have survived the evolutionary process if Hobbes and friends were right. De Waal, for example, dispels three of the most prevalent myths concerning human origins: “that our ancestors ruled the savanna”[2], “that human society is the creation of autonomous men”[3], and “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.”[4] “Empathy,” de Waal concludes, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”[5]

We survived the evolutionary process because we are social creatures, who depended on one another and took care of one another, and “It is evident,” according to Kropotkin,

that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[6]

The man (it is always a man) of rugged individualism, who is at bottom self-interested, greedy, and perhaps even evil, would have died off before such a time—over 100,000 years into his existence—when such things as states and profit developed to prevent him from killing all the other members of his species. As David Graeber writes in Debt,

There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.[7]

“Social Darwinists may disagree,” says de Waal, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”[8] This social motive, however, arguably runs counter to capitalism. Milton Friedman recognized this when he wrote that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”[9] Graeber concurs that the capitalist corporation

is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.[10]

So, again, if human nature truly were such an evil thing, this fact would hardly constitute an argument in favor of capitalism.

Furthermore, it is an incredibly reductive way of thinking. I often hear that we are faced with an either/or choice between affirming the ultimate goodness or badness of humanity. But it’s unclear to me why we have to face this either/or at all. In doing so, we nihilistically resign ourselves to our supposedly evil natures. We know that this or that will never work—whether it be anarchism, socialism, an end to war, the abolition of economics that centralize greed—because of human nature, so why bother even trying? If we are determined that such things can never be achieved, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for example, we never try to end war, because we have become convinced by the concept of human nature that it’s not possible, we will never actually know if it is possible or not! To be sure, from the standpoint of the state and capitalism (and many religious institutions), this is an incredibly effective tool against dissent. Convince people that they are ultimately evil and need Big Brother to curb their evil instincts and they will fall in line and not question your authority.

According to Graeber, the idea of “self-interest”—that we are all ultimately self-interested—originated in St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But “When it was first introduced,” Graeber writes, “most English authors seemed to view the idea that all human life can be explained as the pursuit of self-interest as a cynical, foreign, Machiavellian idea, one that sat uncomfortably with traditional English mores.” Nevertheless, “By the eighteenth century, most in educated society accepted it as simple common sense.”[11] Why did society suddenly jump onto the self-interest bandwagon? According to Graeber,

Part of the term’s appeal was that it derived from bookkeeping. It was mathematical. This made it seem objective, even scientific. Saying we are all really pursuing our own self-interest provides a way to cut past the welter of passions and emotions that seem to govern our daily existence, and to motivate most of what we actually observe people to do (not only out of love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation, and pride) and discover that, despite all this, most really important decisions are based on the rational calculation of material advantage—which means that they are fairly predictable as well.[12]

The idea of the ultimately self-interested nature of human beings, then, was useful and served as a way to cut past all of the messiness of daily life, reducing it all to economic cost-benefit calculations. It was a means of simplifying the complexities of human actions and emotions. A convenience perhaps, but in the end it remains unclear why such a singular explanation is necessary in the first place.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that human beings are “ultimately good.” I am not arguing that human beings are ultimately anything. While I do believe that, per Kropotkin and de Waal (and others), empathy and mutual aid are evolutionarily wired into us, my claim is that such explanations as “human nature,” which depend on there being one basic principle by which everything else is constituted are unnecessarily—and dangerously—reductive. Again, why do human beings have to be either ultimately good or ultimately bad? Why can’t we look our history, riddled not only with war, greed, and profit, but also with heroism, selflessness, love, compassion, and mutual aid, and simply conclude that human beings are capable both of great evil and of great good? Doing so can certainly be frightening, as we are forced to accept responsibility for our actions—rather than blaming it all on human nature—and must realize that the future, far from dragging us helplessly into a world that is just as selfish, greedy, and war-torn as our past, is actually undecided and undetermined and waiting for us to act to bring it into reality. And we have a say in whether that reality is better or worse than our current condition. “To begin to free ourselves,” writes Graeber, “the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.”[13] The concept of human nature would have us believe that we are slaves to fate, but I do not think that such nihilism is at all necessary.

To my mind, human nature is in the same camp as determinism, reductive materialism, and Nietzschean will to power—viz., I think they are reductionist and self-referentially inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, if we are all ultimately selfish, where did the idea of selflessness even come from? And why did we decide that such a mode of action, which apparently runs contrary to our very natures, is in fact desirable and even morally superior? Some might argue that a psychological and/or ethical egoist position could quickly do away with this objection, but to my mind de Waal effectively dispenses with such alternatives when he writes that “Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.”[14] We are empathic, social creatures, who thrive on community, compassion, and mutual aid. As de Waal concludes, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile.”[15] (De Waal also tellingly notes that, statistically, “Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality,”[16] whereas more egalitarian states and societies tend to produce greater happiness and overall well-being.)

Therefore, I would propose that we dispense with the fictitious and oppressive concept of “human nature” altogether, and open ourselves up to the possibility of doing better. After all, apologists for the state and capitalism often also believe that the founding of the United States was a great improvement for humanity. But if the utopian revolutionaries of the 18th century were able to make humanity’s situation a bit better, why should “human nature” stop us now?

 

Notes

[1] Goldman, Emma (2009-10-04). Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 43-44). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] De Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 205.

[6] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. (Mineloa, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 62.

[7] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Brooklyn/London: Melville House, 2012), 210.

[8] De Waal, 36.

[9] Qtd., De Waal, 38.

[10] Graeber, 320.

[11] Ibid., 331.

[12] Ibid., 331.

[13] Ibid., 383.

[14] De Waal, 106.

[15] Ibid., 221.

[16] Ibid., 197.

On Consumer Choice

It is often said that one of the great merits of capitalism is that it allows retailers to respond to consumer desires, so that when a consumer wants, for example, shoes, a retailer is there to sell her said shoes, and a nice little exchange happens and everyone’s a winner. Furthermore, if the consumer is displeased with the service she receives (poor quality shoes, for example), she is free to “take her business elsewhere”, as the saying goes.

However, things are not this simple in the real world.

Let’s start from the beginning. The goal of a business in capitalism is maximization of profit, plain and simple. Selling things for which there is a high demand seems like the easiest way to achieve this goal. Not only is profit maximized, but consumer needs/desires are fulfilled. Again, everyone’s a winner. Unfortunately, when the business’s primary goal is to make profit for itself, the most obvious implication is that we can expect lies and deceitful tactics to be employed in order to sell products. A quick look into present-day advertisement shows this to be the case. Look at Monsanto, for example. They are unloading literally billions of dollars into lobbying against bills that would require its food products to carry labeling when–as is overwhelmingly the case–they contain GMOs. Why is this a problem? Well, what the consumer wants is healthful food. What Monsanto wants is profit. And if using GMOs is cheaper, then from the standpoint of capitalism, the obvious choice for the corporation is to continue using GMOs, regardless of the health risk to its consumers, and, as much as possible, to prevent the consumers from even finding out about these health risks so that they continue to buy the product!

Some will object that it is better business to not deceive one’s consumers, as upon finding out, they will “take their business elsewhere” and you will lose your profit. But again, look at Monsanto–or, better yet, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sells food and clothing (among other things) at very low prices, so that low-income people can buy them. However, it is no secret that much (if not all) of Wal-Mart’s clothing is produced by slave labor in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and China. Is that what consumers want? Presumably not. Why do so many people still shop there? Because it’s the only place they can afford! Do you really expect consumers to boycott the only place at which they can afford to shop, even if they know that its products aren’t healthful or are produced in morally outrageous working conditions? Of course not!

And besides that, capitalism is necessarily short-sighted. What is important is not the perceived long-term effects of the product being sold (whether on the consumer, the environment, or one’s grandchildren), but the short-term effect of ensuring profit for the next quarter. One might say that in theory this is not how capitalism is supposed to work, but in practice it very obviously is exactly how capitalism works.

Maximizing profit and meeting consumer needs–truly meeting consumer needs–simply do not go hand in hand. Next time you’re in an outlet store (or any kind of store for that matter), think about whether all of the manipulative and deceitful methods that are used in attempts to convince you to purchase expensive, superfluous things (that are often unhealthy, environmentally destructive, and produced by slaves, to boot) truly reflects a system that is as free and mutually beneficial as free market advocates say it is.

[As an aside, I have known people in commission-based sales careers who often truly seek the customer’s best interest, and consequently–and I think this is telling–often end up losing money by doing so. I think it’s great when this happens, but it’s not so good from the capitalist point of view wherein, quite simply, profit maximization takes precedence over everything–including the best interest of the customer. It is worth noting that markets do not necessarily equal capitalism. For example, mutualism, the form of anarchism advocated by the first political philosopher to call himself an anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is a type of anti-capitalist market anarchism.]

Notes On Anarchism: “Don’t People Need Incentives In Order to Work?”

This is a common objection to anarchism (and socialism more generally): without incentive (i.e., the promise of more money, or the threat of no money), no one will do any work! According to this line of thinking, then, the carrot must be dangled in front of our faces in order for us to pull our master’s load a little faster and a little farther. In a certain sense, this is true. We do not sell ourselves to capitalists because we want to–we do it because we must eat! However, the idea that this is the only possible way that any necessary work could ever be done strikes me as incredibly problematic. It perpetuates the idea that human beings are too stupid and selfish to do anything for the benefit of others without the carrot and stick that the beneficent state so graciously hold before us. (Somehow, apparently, we have figured out that we should work together and help each other out, but that we can’t and/or won’t without someone to offer us cookies when we do and the stick when we don’t.)

Furthermore, I think this mindset can serve to dehumanize those who take jobs that supposedly no one else wants to. Essentially, this thinking seems to imply that these jobs, though certainly valuable and necessary for the successful functioning of society, are not respectable jobs. Nevertheless, in order for a privileged few to do what they love, some poor schmucks have to get stuck with the so-called “dirty jobs.” And, again, the thinking goes, without some sort of incentive (i.e., do this or else you don’t eat), these jobs would never be done (because apparently the privileged few simply cannot be bothered to pick up their own trash and clean their toilets).

On the contrary, it seems that things tend to go better in society when people are free to follow their passions without fear that doing so will not put bread on the table. And when people are free to follow their passions, they give the world the best they have to offer–whether it be through artistic, educational, mechanical, medical, or any other skill. I think that is a world worth fighting for. Let’s quit devaluing ourselves with all this talk about needing incentives to do anything. We are social creatures and we never would have survived this long without mutual aid and community.

Some Further Thoughts On the Im/Possibility of Anarchy

A few months back, I took a stab at responding to one of the most commonly asked questions about anarchy and anarchism–namely, is it really possible?  I tried to engage some of the scholarship surrounding the issue in order to answer the question, but in every day conversation, my response essentially consists of two basic points that I think are worth elucidating.

First–and this is a point on which many anarchists might disagree with me–I’m not sure that the question of possibility is the best question to be asking.  Quite simply, I don’t know if anarchy is possible.  As I noted in the previous post, it has been attempted with relative success on a small scale in the past, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it would or could ever happen on a global scale (and by global I mean a world comprised of many, many small anarchist communities and federations).  However, I’m not really interested in speculating on whether or to what extent it is possible.  Possibility and impossibility are, I think, largely contingent on what we take to be possible or impossible.  (More on this below.)  As I mentioned before, the most important aspect of anarchism for me is that it is the endless pursuit of justice and freedom from all forms of oppression, coercion, domination, etc., whether in the form of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, or other forms.  In short, it is the pursuit of a society in which the inherent value, dignity, and equality of every human person is radically affirmed.  Is such a world possible?  I don’t know, but it would be foolish not to try for it.

And secondly, I think it’s important to remember that we have a say in what is possible and so long as we continue to convince ourselves that certain social, political, and economic ways of organizing are impossible, they will be.  So long as we stubbornly hold on to the belief that “human nature” (an oppressive, fictitious concept, in my view) just is such a way that it will never allow us to live in a radically antiauthoritarian, radically egalitarian society, it will be impossible–we’ll never even bother to try!  How fatalistic!  How nihilistic.  And yet, it seems that, the same folks who talk this way about anarchism, will in the next breath praise the founding fathers, the American Revolution, and our Constitution as great leaps forward in human history.  If the democratic (read: bourgeois) revolutionaries of the 18th century could achieve what was at the time considered by many to be utopian, why must we assume that we can’t do the same–and maybe even more–in the 21st century?

All of this to say: I’m not interested in discussing the “possibility” of anarchy; I’m interested in action*.  And I’d rather fail in the pursuit of justice and equality than to never try at all.  It would be an experiment, of course, but the American government was an experiment as well!  Why should we not continue trying to do better?

*As should be abundantly clear to anyone who reads this blog, the action I advocate is nonviolent action.

Markets, Meritocracy, and Human Rights

So far as I understand it, one of the chief arguments in favor of unfettered free markets is that they would allow for a true meritocracy.  All who were willing would be able to find work and, as a result, be able to eat, purchase healthcare, have a home, etc.  Putting aside the fact that I do not think that “leaving it to the free market” would in any way result in a meritocratic society—on the contrary, it is plutocracy—I think there is a deeper moral problem with this line of reasoning.

The idea that one’s basic needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare, etc.) should be earned for oneself on the basis of merit—which, in this case, means one’s ability to sell oneself on the market and bring profit to her employer—is, I think, extremely problematic.  First of all, it is unclear to me how this situation is in any way one of freedom.  If one must sell oneself in order to survive, one is not free; one’s labor is forced.  And as David Graeber writes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “It is the great scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”[1]

But, furthermore, (and more to the point), it must be asked: Why does not the simple fact of being human constitute sufficient “merit” to not starve because one cannot afford food, or to live on the streets because one cannot afford a home, or to die in an ambulance because one cannot afford healthcare?  It seems to me that however lazy or unproductive someone happens to be, however little monetary value she may have—which, I should add, is at least as often a result of the “free market” deciding her particular skillset is not presently profitable as it is laziness—one still has the right, in virtue of being human, to have her basic needs met.

“Leaving it to the free market” essentially means, at best, leaving it to luck, and at worst, to the all-too-often merciless greed perpetuated by the religion of profit maximization.  That is no place for human rights.  Human life is not a commodity.  And the fact that we have to sell ourselves to employers, who profit by stealing as much as labor laws will allow from the value of our commoditized labor—and by extension, commoditized lives—simply in order to survive, is ludicrous, unnecessary, and immoral.

And it is not enough to simply advocate regulated capitalism either, which seems to me to be analogous to patching the roof on a home with a faulty foundation and calling it good (the foundation of capitalism being the maximization of profit which, both in theory and practice, seems to necessarily imply a skirting of human rights where there is profit to made.  If, therefore, one values—no economic pun intended—human rights over profit, rather than the other way around, it seems that one has already betrayed the basic logic of capitalism).  The foundation itself must be changed.


[1] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), 350.