Now the ongoing travelling circus of US Presidential politics is taking a 5-minute coffee break, we can all go back to pondering the big questions again (that is until we get the latest news on whether 2016 will be a Clinton-Bush contest). For me that means thinking about the links between (a) the capitalist economy as we know it, (b) the operating of an increasingly authoritarian state/corporate security apparatus, and as such (c) strategies for resistance and renewal.
My basic working hypothesis is that private capital, in order to function successfully according to its own logic of profit, must extract greater and greater output from both working people and the natural environment. With the increasing insecurity of the global middle class and the theft of the means of subsistence for rural inhabitants, capital’s hegemonic control is weakening. This in turn means a requisite strengthening of authoritarian control in order to keep the working populace in line so that the process may continue apace. For those of us serious about living in a world consistent with the values of freedom, solidarity, equality and sustainability this has wide-ranging implications about our overall strategy of resistance.
I’d like to be clear on terminology. By private capital I mean capital that is the private property of an individual used to extract a profit from the production-exchange-consumption process. Private property/capital is often equated with personal property, which is the stuff you own which has largely come about because you went to work, got paid and then spent that income on stuff. One of the great tricks of the dominant capitalist ideology is to equate a remote process (i.e. the use of private capital to accumulate a profit) with something within your realm of experience that you know and love (i.e. that car you drive around in). And by hegemony, I mean the extent to which the ideology (ideas, values and expectations) of the ruling elite is accepted by the rest of us as the natural order of things/just the way it is, always was and always will be.
Stability in a capitalist economy requires ongoing economic growth. This is because capitalist production is the production of goods and service for profit. The capitalist invests their sum X in order to get a profit of let’s say 3% over 12 months. At the end of this 12 month period, the total amount of capital becomes X + 0.3X. Assuming the totality of capitalist production in any given year also returns a total 3% in profits then the total amount of capital has increased by the same corresponding amount. For the rest of us that means that we can continue to make a living. If the capitalist can’t make a profit from this process we’ve got a problem or a crisis on our hands, production regardless of its other social functions it fulfills becomes pointless and the rest of us don’t really make a living. But given the primacy of profit-making in our system and the ingenuity of the individuals involved in fulfilling this mission, these temporary barriers (whether its access to inputs, the cost of production or the lack of a markets) are overcome and profits return. What this means is that over the last three and a half centuries of capitalism, the total value of capital in circulation has increased exponentially such that the barriers to profit-making may be harder and harder to overcome to the extent that they are verging on absolute. For example, the globe is finite and there comes a point in time (it may have already come but I don’t have the expertise to make a call) when it can no longer provide sufficient inputs or cope with the volume of outputs from an exponentially increasing production-exchange-consumption process.
The rise of insecure and precarious work should be viewed in this context. It’s both a strategy to lower the price of labour in order to extract a higher return of profit and a response to costs of stockpiling goods. However, as a strategy to lower labour costs it is qualitatively different to other strategies. Historically, an increase in profits from labour have come from either increasing productivity (the amount of output per labour time) or repressing workers’ wages. The shift from workshop production that relied on teams of skilled craftspeople working in teams towards industrial production lines with deskilled workers achieved both. It allowed for wage repression through expanding the available labour market to those without the skills and/or physical strength necessary in previous processes. Furthermore, factory production resulted in a lot more goods being made per unit of labour time. While the geographic shifting of production to lower wage regions is not only is an effective strategy to hold down labour costs but also a way of introducing new technologies and processes to greatly increase productivity. Precarious work though is different because the increased profit comes from distancing the idea of a regular and ongoing relationship between the worker and the corporation from the productive process. In the past, the worker was still employed by and thereby part of the firm, any ‘sacrifice’ a worker had to make could be painted as a short-term set back in an otherwise positive and common future. With insecure work though the profit comes a from more efficient just-in-time production process that has the added benefit of breaking down workers traditional means of resistance (industrial unions) and thereby keeping wages down. However, it comes at the expense of the capitalism’s longer-term hegemonic power.