Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On Labor

In a full-blown capitalistic society, labor, as Karl Polanyi has made clear, must be considered merely a commodity, along with land and money. As a commodity it is subject to the laws of supply and demand, competition, and the vagaries of the marketplace. That is why at the moment we find unemployment as a serious problem. As so many laborers have little money they cannot buy the goods and services that are offered by businesses. As businesses cannot find a ready and reliable market for their goods and services they cannot afford to hire workers. Thus we have a kind of self-defeating situation that cannot be rectified or even helped short of government intervention, a remedy to which Republicans are violently opposed. They have been successful so far in thwarting any attempt to use taxpayer money to create jobs even though that is known to be a useful tool during recessions. Thus unemployment remains higher than it should be and they can use this situation to discredit President Obama. I noticed the other day an article in the Wall Street Journal that began by claiming high unemployment is “unnatural.” I don’t believe it is unnatural at all given the current circumstances. But there is another problem with unemployment in the modern world, particularly the United States but true in other industrialized nations as well. Technology and population growth have combined in such a way as to make high unemployment virtually inevitable without some basic changes in how we think about labor and organize our work force.

It is widely known that productivity has increased rapidly in the past few years. This has resulted in the creation of a great deal of wealth. But we also know this wealth has not been shared with labor, has all gone to the already wealthy individuals and corporations. If it had been shared more equitably our employment situation could be, and probably would be, much different than it is. Imagine, if you will, that labor, rather than being considered merely a commodity along with pork bellies, potatoes, and cheese, was considered a national treasure. That is, labor would be considered a valuable national asset, a resource, and as such would be highly trained, well-paid, kept healthy, and valued. As productivity continued to increase, and was shared with those who made it possible, it would not be necessary for individual workers to work as many hours. We could have, say, a 30 hour work week. Workers would be entitled to longer vacations (as many already enjoy in Europe), and, having money, could afford such leisure activities. Unemployment would be rare, full employment would be more “natural,” and the citizens would be much happier, healthier, and in general much better off than they presently are. I do not believe this is at all far-fetched. But it would demand a drastic change in the commodity value of labor.

You will notice that U.S. companies are often complaining they cannot find the trained workers they need here and thus have to import them from European and other nations. Is it not obvious that our educational system needs to be seriously upgraded to provide the talent required? Our educational system is basically a shambles as people, especially Republicans, refuse to fund it and even seem to wish we could be rid of it entirely. Workers who are paid minimum wages, and sometimes even more, even though they work a full 40 hour, or more per week, still find themselves living below the poverty line. Republicans are adamantly opposed to increasing the minimum wage. As many workers do not have health care our work force is not as healthy or productive as it could be. Republicans do not want them to have health care. In a large scale, highly populated, complex industrialized economy it is necessary to have a well-trained and competent police force, firemen, teachers, and all kinds of other public servants. Republicans think we should do without these necessities as they represent “big government.” Similarly, we need a strong and functioning infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, etc. Republicans are opposed to spending money on such necessities. They do not, however, object to a massively bloated defense budget, giving tax breaks to huge international corporations that do not need them, and tax breaks for the wealthiest among us who also do not need them.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind anymore that the root cause of our current deterioration, including unemployment, has to do with our insane obsessions with capitalism as the only viable economic organization possible. The basic necessity in such a system is that everything has to be reduced to a commodity, including labor, and these commodities have to be pursued for the sole reason of making a profit. This has allowed corporations to move overseas in search of cheap labor, to neglect having to educate workers here at home, and to generate large surplus populations of uneducated, untrained and largely unnecessary workers. Rather than trying to alleviate this problem there are those who prefer the surplus to lack health care, decent jobs and wages, adequate food and housing, and eventually not so mysteriously just somehow disappear.

“…labour is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother.”

William Petty

No comments: