Saturday, 6 April 2019

Capitalism and the Apocalypse - The Twin Evils of Overpopulation and Consumerism


Ainsi … apparaît déjà le mal essentiel de l'humanité, la substitution des moyens aux fins. Tantôt la guerre. apparaît au premier plan, tantôt la recherche de la richesse, tantôt la production ; mais le mal reste le même. Les moralistes vulgaires se plaignent que l'homme soit mené par son intérêt personnel ; plût au ciel qu'il en fût ainsi ! L'intérêt est un principe d'action égoïste, mais borné, raisonnable, qui ne peut engendrer des maux illimités. La loi de toutes, les activités qui dominent l'existence sociale, c'est au contraire, exception faite pour les sociétés primitives, que chacun y sacrifie la vie humaine, en soi et en autrui, à des choses qui ne constituent que des moyens de mieux vivre. Ce sacrifice revêt des formes diverses, mais tout se résume dans la question du pouvoir. Le pouvoir, par définition, ne constitue qu'un moyen ; ou pour mieux dire posséder un pouvoir, cela consiste simplement à posséder des moyens d'action qui dépassent la force si restreinte dont un individu dispose par luimême. Mais la recherche du pouvoir, du fait même qu'elle est essen
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 42
tiellement impuissante à se saisir de son objet, exclut toute considération de fin, et en arrive, par un renversement inévitable, à tenir lieu de toutes les fins. C'est ce renversement du rapport entre le moyen et la fin, c'est cette folie fondamentale qui rend compte de tout ce qu'il y a d'insensé et de sanglant tout au long de l'histoire. L'histoire humaine n'est que l'histoire de l'asservissement qui fait des hommes, aussi bien oppresseurs qu'opprimés, le simple jouet des instruments de domination qu'ils ont fabriqués eux-mêmes, et ravale ainsi l'humanité vivante à être la chose de choses inertes.
It is true: the substitution of ends with the means – or more prosaically put, “the end justifying the means” whereby human goals are relegated to the remote future while brutal exploitative means are employed – is perhaps a chronic evil for humanity. Yet, Weil here curiously avoids, first, the obvious fact that it is only under capitalism (as Weber sharply observed, following Marx [see his lecture on Sozialismus]) that this substitution of ends with means comes finally to pervade the very mode of production and reproduction of human societies in the shape of the end-less accumulation of capital; and second, curiouser still in an essay largely dedicated to Marxism, the fact that this realization is perhaps Marx’s greatest discovery. Or rather, Marx’s greatest discovery is the enucleation of the process whereby the accumulation of capital becomes possible – and that is, the social creation under capitalism of the “double character” (Doppelcharakter) of the commodity labour-power. It is the political violence of the bourgeoisie whereby it turns human living activity (or living labour) into a homogeneous commodity that can be measured and be given a market price – as if it were a “quantifiable thing”, an inert object -; it is this bourgeois violence that transmutes like alchemy human living activity into a reified bazaar of dead products, of marketable commodities (or “goods” as bourgeois economists have re-baptized them) – an alchemy that has come to pervade all of our lives and that, as a result, “make humans become the simple toy of the instruments of domination that they themselves have built…and thus abases living humanity to be the ‘thing’ of inert things”.
Weil’s macroscopic failure to  remark on the essential difference between capitalism and prior modes of production in terms of its catastrophic impact on the ecosphere through the universal reification of human social life – from production to consumption – engendered by the commodification of human living labour: - it is this historically specific inversion of human living activity (the end) with the inert product of this activity (commodities or goods or dead labour – the means) that Weil ought to have placed front and centre of her analysis of social oppression – precisely the way Marx did.
In fairness to Weil, it is entirely plausible to construe her Reflections as an indictment of the apocalyptically perverse reification and commodification of human living labour – from an end in itself to a means for realizing profits in the irrationally end-less accumulation of money-capital that capitalism has unleashed on our sorry planet (endless because as a purely monetary cipher it has no limit and no rational substantive human goal). Her real shortcoming, however, is the failure to locate the modality of this apocalyptic perversion of human living activity and destruction of the ecosphere through the twin evils of overpopulation and consumerism. It is to this modality and twin evils that we shall turn presently.
We start from the universally accepted notion that the very essence of capitalism is to generate profits for capitalists. Profit is the monetary difference between total investment and total revenue. For a capitalist enterprise to be profitable, the products it sells must amount to more than the cost of producing them with the cost of capital added (interest at the prevailing rate over the period of production and sale). This means that in the process of production the inputs have been “valorised” - their value has grown - and this is then reflected in the “realisation” of the value through the sale process. But how can the components of production acquire value? After all, objects (means of production - raw materials and machinery) are only inert objects and they cannot possibly possess or acquire “value”. It is obvious that value, and the value added in the process of production, can only be derived from living labour.
We have therefore a “double character” (Doppelcharakter) of human living labour: - on one side, as living activity, it is the only possible source of value in the form of dead labour, as “produced goods”: in this consists the use value of living labour to the capitalist. Yet, on the other side, the living labour of workers can be “purchased” as labour-power through the violence of the wage relation “on the market” like any other commodity through its exchange with the commodities or “goods” produced earlier by the workers themselves, in other words, with “dead labour”! Thus, the capitalist “purchases” the living labour of workers as if it were a commodity that can be exchanged like and with any other commodity or exchange value. It follows that value-as-capital can never be a “fixed” quantity – a “thing” - but must be instead a social relation in constant circulation from production in the workplace to sale in the market!
Two things follow from this conclusion: the first is that the value of a particular commodity cannot be determined until after it is actually sold on the market - until its potential value is realised. And the second is that this value, once it is realized as money capital, is determined ultimately by the ability “to purchase” labour-power on the market as if it were a commodity or exchange value like any other. But this means that the supreme task of the capitalist, which is to maximize profit and therefore to optimize the accumulation of capital, must be, first, to reduce the labor time that workers need to reproduce themselves (necessary labour), and second, to expand thereby the labor time that workers take to produce the surplus value that will ultimately be realized in the market as profit by the capitalist. It follows that as the capitalist successfully reduces the necessary labour time for the workers to reproduce themselves, then, given that a worker can only work so many hours in a day, the capitalist must increase the number of workers employed in order to increase the amount of potential surplus value and profit realizable in the market. Marx himself reached this conclusion in the Grundrisse:
Capital tends both to render human labour (relatively) superfluous and also to push it beyond all boundaries. Value is nothing other than objectified labour, and surplus value (the valourisation of capital) is nothing other than the excess of objectified labour on the amount necessary for the reproduction of the labour force. But living labour is and remains the fundamental requisite of objectified labour and of surplus value, while surplus labour [disposable labour] exists only in relation to necessary labour, and therefore only to the extent that there still is necessary labour. Capital must therefore incessantly create more necessary labour [in absolute terms] to create surplus labour [and therefore surplus value]. It has to multiply surplus labour (by means of simultaneous working days [by means of more individual workers]) in order to multiply surplus value. At the same time, capital has to suppress necessary labour so as to turn it into surplus labour…It is for this reason that the capitalist seeks the increase of the working population. And it is the actual process of reduction of necessary labour that enables the capitalist to employ new living labour [new workers] (and therefore create surplus labour [that is, surplus value]). (In other words, the production of workers becomes “cheaper”; and therefore it is possible to produce more workers in the same measure as the time for necessary labour decreases or the time needed for the reproduction of the labour force decreases....) – K.Marx, Grundrisse, 3.2.25)
Profit in capitalist enterprise, and therefore surplus value, makes absolutely no sense at all unless it is seen as value that can be (a) increased through the process of production or “valorisation”, and (b) “realised” through the process of market sale. But once this profit or surplus value is “realised” through the sale of produced commodities, this profit realised by capitalists in its monetary form can have absolutely no meaning unless it can be expressed as purchasing power over fresh living labour! This means that the process of realisation of profit can have meaning only through the exertion of capitalist command over fresh living labour, over an ever-expanding population of workers.
Money, to the extent that it exists already as capital, is therefore simply a policy [a legal claim] on future (new) labour. Objectively it exists only as money. Surplus value, the added objectified labour, in itself is money; but money now exists as capital, and as such it is a policy on future labour. Here capital enters a relationship no longer with existing labour, but also with future labour. It also presents itself no longer as consisting merely of its simple elements in the process of production, but also as money; but no longer as money that is simply the abstract form of social wealth, but again as a policy [as a claim] on the real possibility of general wealth – on the labour-force, or better on the labour-force in actu. In this form as a policy or claim on potential labour-force, its material existence as money is irrelevant and may be substituted by any other claim on the labour-force. Just as with public credit, each capitalist possesses, in the value already appropriated [as product or objectified labour, or as money capital], a claim on the future labour-force; by appropriating living labour in its present form as objectified labour, the capitalist has already appropriated a claim on future labour-power…. Here is already revealed the ability of capital to exist as a social power separate from its objective material existence. Here is already implicit the existence of capital as credit. Its accumulation in the form of money therefore is not at all an accumulation of the material conditions of labour [of the means of production], but rather of the legal claim to living labour [on workers]. This means posing future labour as wage labour, as use value for capital. For the new [objectified] labour created [the product] there exists no equivalent [that is, no existing exchange value]; its possibility [to be valourised through new expanded production] exists only in a new labour force. (K. Marx, Grundrisse, 3.2.21)
This conclusion is certainly devastatingly simple – but its implications for our ecosphere are much more devastating, as we are about to see! What it entails is not only that to maximise profit and its accumulation capital must seek to exploit its existing workers to the very utmost, but also that it must increase the number of workers it can exploit to the limit of available social resources! And that is far from all. Capitalists also need the presence of a reserve army of the unemployed workers that (a) provides competitive tension on employed workers to drive down wages, and (b) provides a repository of further investment for capitalists to expand their command over society so that there may be what is called “capitalist accumulation”. In other words, capitalist accumulation through surplus value and its monetary equivalent, profit, is nothing other than the expansion of political claims over excess labour-power through overpopulation.
But overpopulation is only one pillar of capitalist accumulation and, therefore, of the systematic destruction of the ecosphere. As we indicated earlier, the other aspect is consumerism. We shall deal with this next.

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