Friday, August 27, 2010

Late Fourties Capitalist Propaganda (Or: On Labor and Weenies)

In more than one post so far, I've expressed my, let's say, frustration (to say the least) with which the manner in which the institution of wage-labor (more commonly known as the "job") is taken as an unquestioned given.

This is of course when ideology is most effective -- i.e., when it cannot even be seen. That is, when particular historical forms are assumed to be constant, ahistorical, unchanging, etc. Or, further still, when such assumptions are not even articulated; they operate at an unconscious level.

This video, entitled "What is Capitalism?," I think well-illustrates the point. Its from 1948. (I think I first learned of this video from the subject of this blog.) It is, let's be clear, capitalist propaganda. An expression like that might seem shopworn to some ears, but it clearly fits the bill. That is, it is constructed to sell capitalism, or persuade people of its virtues, while at the same time obscuring some its most essential features. I decided to use this video when I taught a class in the History of Economic Thought.

If you watch the video, you'll see that it consists of a (mock) portrait of a terribly earnest and engaged discussion among high school students about the definition of "capitalism." They use, as an example, a visit to Mr. Brown's grocery store to buy "weenies" for the class weenie roast. After arguing vigorously (and letting us see their visit to his store) they come up with the following list of defining features of "capitalism":
(1) Private Property
(2) Profit motive
(3) Competition
(4) Freedom of contract
(5) Government-enacted laws granting rights (including certain Constitutional rights) to items #1 and #4

And, they conclude, that (1)-(5) adds up to (6) "Free Enterprise" (which, of course, is a much more attractive sounding term than "capitalism.") (Incidentally, #5 is a rather sophisticated observation-- at least relative to what most economists generally discuss. Certainly they failed to recall it when administering so-called "shock therapy" to the former Soviet Union.)

After playing this video in my class, I listed these features on the blackboard. I asked my students: Is there anything else you'd add? Or does this seem like an extensive, and exhaustive, list?

Now, on the one hand, this was one of those "guess what the teacher is thinking moments," which, as a student, I often hate. At the same time, I did want to get them thinking about what might be missing.

Finally I asked them -- who works in Mr. Brown's store? Where are his employees?

In fact, in this hypothetical, Mr. Brown, is a sole proprietor: he is self-employed, runs his own store, and has no employees. Now, while this is not entirely unheard of (there are, of course, self-employed people) it cannot in any meaningful sense describe capitalism. Most people earn their living by having a job and working for an employer. Most people are not self-employed.

This fact should be patently obvious to everyone. Yet none of my students thought of it. I recall saying to them that this might simply be because most of them had not entered the labor force yet. But I also hazarded a guess out loud (and admitted that this was just a guess) that even if you showed this video to someone who had been working at a regular job for many years, they'd miss it. And that's simply because this video is exceptionally effective. The place that people spend the majority of their waking lives -- the workplace -- and the attendant institution of the "job" (or wage-labor) is entirely eclipsed. All other features of capitalism (those that, at least to many, seem to be emblematic of "freedom" and "individuality" -- e.g., freedom of contract, the right to own one's own property, etc.) are highlighted. But the essentially hierarchical and undemocratic conditions of the workplace -- which everyone knows from their everyday, lived experience, are nonetheless completely obscured. Again, it strikes me as remarkably effective propaganda when a video can make people forget something that they experience in their everyday waking life.

(There is, as it happens, one interesting moment where an employee is actually pictured. He is a car mechanic. He says: "Freedom of contract? Don't know about that. We've got the union and seniority! I make a living -- I should worry." And goes back, worry-free, to working on the car. Get it? Not terribly subtle. Unions = bad.)

I should note that this treatment of wage-labor as being merely incidental to (rather than essential to) capitalism is entirely in keeping with treatments in standard economic textbooks. And not merely because it is continuously assumed (erroneously) that a market must necessarily entail a labor market. But also because "labor" is treated as a commodity just like any other. Capitalism entails the buying and selling of commodities, all of which are subject to the forces of supply and demand. Why single one out? Why single out "labor"? Under the logic of standard neoclassical economics, we would have just as much right to single out "weenies" as we would "labor." (I could draw a labor supply curve no less easily than a weenie supply curve. As a formal matter, they are exactly the same.)

But the treatment of labor as no different than any other commodity is absurd -- and everybody who works for a living knows this. Karl Polanyi has a chapter in The Great Transformation in which he calls labor a "fictitious commodity" -- but one need not read Polanyi to get the point.[1] One merely has to experience selling one's self (one's "labor-power" or capacity to labor) on a daily basis. It is a strange discipline indeed (that of "economics") that would formally equate the submission of one's creative capacity to another's authority with the buying and selling of weenies.

But such is the state of the discipline known as "economics." And it is, in my opinion, one of the absolutely key reasons that this discipline must be re-constructed. I'm hoping, at some point, we get around to that.

Note 1: It may nonetheless be worth quoting Polanyi here. Noting that a commodity is, by definition, something produced for sale, labor, he observes, does not fit the definition: "Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life..."

It is, of course, an absurd contention that the act of caring for and raising human beings so that they have as a full a complement of "human activities" as possible is (in contemporary society) with the intention of producing a commodity for sale. Other motivations are typically imputed -- the desire to, say, have, love and care for one's children being just one. I'd even go so far to say that the postulation of any other reason -- like producing a commodity for sale -- is a description that most people would find offensive. But it is a description that fits in very comfortably in the language of economics. Indeed, the matter is yet worse than that. Labor, as economics deems it, is not merely a "commodity" -- it is a "factor of production" or a "resource." Human beings, insofar as we are workers, are mere resources. We are to be used for the benefit of "the economy." (And here I thought the purpose of "the economy" was to serve people, not vice-versa.) People as such (with full agency and subjectivity) disappear insofar as they are workers. In fact, the only time human agency appears, in economic discourse, is insofar as we act in our role as consumers. There, according to economics, we are acting to satisfy our needs. But insofar as we are workers, we are mere "resources" to be used. I still remain astounded at how language which would otherwise be morally offensive can pass as innocent, purportedly value-free "science."

An illustration: recently, the Fed issued a statement saying they anticipated a "...gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization." This is their way of saying they expect unemployment to decrease. Now, tell me -- when people complain about joblessness, is that the nature of the complaint? Do people carry protest signs saying, "hey, I'm a non-utilized resource -- Use Me!" (Maybe we should. Maybe that would get their attention.)


  1. To be technical (or just to be a dick...your choice) if we are to follow Marx, wouldn't Mr. Brown be an ancient who just happened to be operating in a predominately capitalist system if he was a sole proprietor who was not exploiting wage labor? Thus Mr. Brown has nothing to do with capitalism other than being tangentially related in that his business exists in the same group of processes (society) where capitalism is the dominate mode of production. Thus why is Mr Brown a subject in this movie/post at all? Is it something to do with his wennies, or something less sinister?

    Sorry that was in poor taste....I just wanted to write something since I appreciated the post and didn't immediately have anything that I wanted to write.

  2. Poor taste is more than welcome, James.
    Yes, I agree Mr. Brown would be an "ancient" per that schema. And as for why he is "a subject in this movie/post at all" -- I think that's exactly why. If you can erase wage-labor from people's field of vision, then you can interchangeably use the terms "capitalism" and "market," and, ta-da, you've got a key (perhaps the key) ideological move of bourgeois economics (i.e., to conflate capitalism with simple commodity production, as if the difference were incidental.)
    Or at least, that was the point I was trying to make here.
    Obviously people have different definitions of capitalism, and if an "ancient" is operating within an otherwise capitalist system then I suppose one could argue that the relation was something more than merely "tangential," although that may be just a matter of emphasis.