Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What should be done (III)

In my previous post within this series I concluded that the first feature of Capitalism (the fact it forces everybody -or almost everybody- to devote all of their energies to the accumulation of Capital, thus excluding nay other pursuit of what may be considered a "good life") was alredy problematic, and not to be put up with. Before deducing from that a particular course of action, however, I stated the need to review the influence of the other features I had identified in order to have a comprehensive valuation of what should be changed in our socioeconomic system. I proceed to systematically carry out such valuation:

  • The existence of stable private property laws and nominally free markets doesn't seem to impose any unnecesary burden on individuals, or to undercut their propensity for empathy and charity. During most of human history (at least since the neolithic revolution that brought us agriculture) there has been private property, and markets where each person property could be exchanged, without significantly hindering human flourishing (indeed, as Marx remarked, a state of generalized property, where all the citizens had enough land to cultivate, as in early colonial America, was incompatible with Capital accumulation, which demanded the forcible expropriation of the masses in order to create the industrial reserve army on which it fed). Both rigged markets (where parts exchange goods and services with vast asimmetries of negotiating power, of information or of both) and (a typical consequence of imperfect markets) very unequal distribution of properties are indeed a hindrance to that human flourishing which should be the final aim of any social system. We may have to better define what kind of market interventions are desirable (as not all the movements towards greater efficiency are necessarily good, and as as the rationality of them is not to be taken for granted), but in general terms I do not suscribe to the idea that private property is theft (although much of it started as theft originally) or that its suppression would be an improvement. People do work better when they can safely count on keeping (a substantial part of) the "fruit of their labour", so giving them that safety seems to be in the common interest, as long as it doesn't lead to unacceptable unequalities (a big caveat, that will require further work, but Rawls' "difference principle" sounds like a good rule of thumb from which to start)
  • The use of money as a mechanism for recording debts (who owes what to whom) doesn't seem to be overly problematic, either. Although its widespread use as standard of value sometimes shows a somewhat corrosive effect (allowing for the comparison of goods that should remain inconmensurable) the fact that it eases the exchanges of goods and services between strangers (and thus fosters social mobility, allowing an alternative to relying in birth and social rank for deciding on whom to trust) compensates for that potentially deleterious effect. I recognize money has suffered from a bad rap lately, and has been pointed by some as the root of all evil, but I think its critics tend to confuse the sign with what it signals. The excessive accumulation of debt, and the way conditions for canceling it are calculated, may be unjust, destructive, unfair and whatnot, but the denomination of that debt is not in and of itself an evil. Even in a Resource Based Economy some currency would end up being used, as the immediate cancellation of all obligations in all exchanges is neither possible nor desirable. Let's just rememeber that money appeared in Lydia around 600 BC, and for a good 2000 years it sloshed around without causing capitalism to sprout or major financial crises to multiply (well, there were a good share of crises, financial and otherwise, in those millenia, but adscribing them to the use of money may be too far fetched).
  • The existence of commodities is somewhat more problematic, as through the homogeneization they impose on the products to be taken to the market they enable the fierce competition that serves as motor force for the impersonal functioning of such markets, (the competition) being the explanation of their ruthlessness and inhumanity. In the name of competition the executives exploit their work force, lay them off when needed and keep their salaries as low as possible, whilst where competition is thwarted (as we would expect) salaries tend to be higher, work hours shorter and overall working conditions (in terms of additional social benefits) better. However, that reduced competition is in the end paid by the buyers, who have to disburse a higher price or go through subpar service. It is interesting to note that commoditization does not answer to any request from the buyers side (although the buyer is more than happy to accept the lower price commoditization allows), but is rather imposed by the seller, which requires the economies of scale that it enables to achieve. My impression is that people is happier buying products specifically tailored to their needs (can be problematic in the case of water or electricity supply, but even in those there is some space for customization), and even willing to pay a reasonable premium for it, as tendencies such as O2O marketing, mass customization and microtargeting show. Add some technological breakthroughs (like mass scale 3D printing) and may be commoditization is about to disappear (or have its importance greatly diminished) without needing any further action
  • The ability of each agent to sell his labour-power in the market (the existence of a labour market itself) is also pretty problematic. As long as people sold things they had produced themselves they knew where they stood, how much it had costed them to produce and thus how much it was beneficial for them to accept in exchange for those things, without ever having to trust the whole of their value-producing potential to a third party (the employer) whose interest could very well be very different from his. The moment in which people started selling services (i.e. their own time, with the expectation from the buyer of a certain level of proficiency in how that time was employed) things got more complex, although as far as the payment of those services was expllicitly linked to their duration the worker still had a pretty acceptable control over the rest of his life (although the mechanism of indoctrination that had educated him in maximizing the accumulation of capital in which he participated already compelled him to sacrifice as much of his "free" time as possible, but that is a problem of the first feature of capitalist systems, not of this one). But the moment in which the employee had to sell the whole of his time (at least, for the whole duration of a socially defined "working day") things started going South fast. Ironically, when the capitalist system was being created (I'm thinking more in the XVI than in the XV Century here) legislation had to be passed to ensure the capital owners could use "enough" of the workers time, both through massive expropriations which forced enough people (the industrial reserve army, in Marx's terms) into their hands, through the definition of a long enough working day and through the imposition of harsh punishments to those that attempted not to work (anti-vagrancy and poverty laws, in practice laws against the poor), whilst now the legislative bodies of most Western countries push in the other direction, trying to limit the extent of that use limiting the duration of the working day, setting a maximum amount of extra hours per year and setting fixed holidays and rest days. However, the violation of those statutes is most widespread, and for almost all professional categories the extension of the time devoted to work beyond its legal limit is more the norm than the exception...  
Time for a quick recap. We have already gone through all the features we identified as defining "classical" capitalism, and found that the first of them (imposing on all members of society "in good standing" the goal of accumulating capital, for themselves or their employers, excluding any other possible goal) was an aunalloyed evil;  the second and third (use of money and existence of stable property laws and free markets) were neutral, and thus compatible with a "Good society";  the fourth (homogeneization of goods in commodity form to ease their production adn trade) was a mixed bag, but probably prone to disappear by itself, not requiring any action; the last one (ability to sell one's complete labour-power) seems to be more bad than good, but has proved itself difficult to improve unless through legislative action...

We still have to analyze the "moral valence" of the features of the most advanced form of Capitalism (which we have dubbed "digital"), but this post is already too long, so that will wait until the next one.

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