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Mental Wage-Slavery


1) The Poverty of Marx’s Math: Or, Marx Thinks Wages Suck.

It’s confusingly true. Workers under capitalism are shortchanged. And one of the central but hardest to appreciate lessons about our current economic order is that “profit is theft” (a Godelier and Proudhon mash-up). But theft of what? How we answer this question determines whether we will imagine a future still tormented by inflation and imprisoned in class struggle or we will work towards a revolutionary transformation of life and our historical conditions of survival. Is profit’s theft merely of labor (as extra wages) or of our entire history?

Certainly, “Marx’s math“, described by Brian McKenna recently, is crucial to grasping the “profit is theft” lesson. I often begin teaching Marx with his math as well, through a story quite similar to the one relayed by McKenna. Mine recounts a story my teacher would tell his students about his job in a pizza shop. My teacher described how he would try to stop working after he had made enough pizzas to cover his own wages for the day. Of course, he was never allowed to stop. This story warrants the same kind of math conveyed by McKenna’s McDonald’s example, though without the sophisticated data on overhead, etc. The benefit of this approach is that we can imagine not just wanting more from our life and our work but deserving more. And, as McKenna describes, it creates a concrete connection between students’ own crappy jobs and theories of “exploitation.” It also demonstrates how central exploitation is to the overall system of capitalist production. But, in spite of this, I would say that Marx’s math by itself potentially misses the entire lesson to which Marx’s Capital, a critique of economic theory, is dedicated. Specifically, I would say that it can seriously restrict how we understand what “more” we could want out of life, our work, and what we all make together.

The argument McKenna tells in such an engaging way gets at the first part but not the complete spirit of Marx’s critique. In fact, Marx is critiquing the existing labor theories of value of his day, since they depicted as eternal what he saw as historical: the form of value in capitalist society, the wage-labor relationship. The problem we have with this first part is that McKenna’s lesson on Marx’s math interprets a critique of wage-labor through wage-labor itself. Surplus value here, in his (McK) explanation, becomes merely “unpaid wages.”

What we might miss is the crucial understanding of how the wage-labor relation is the lynchpin of a society imprisoned by its own products. The simple math misses this and, therefore, the full meaning of “wage-slavery” and Marx’s critique. To avoid this problem, what I would like to suggest here, in an addendum to McKenna, is that Marx’s math is only fundamental if it leads to an understanding of how money as the dominant medium of exchange imprisons society, therefore corrupting every possible social relationship and set of priorities with its own force and “demands.” This next step signals the difference between Marx’s radical lesson and the liberal failures of the New Deal. The math alone only gets us temporary redistribution within wage-slavery, a point which Marx himself makes quite plainly (link). Inflation and unemployment always catch up to the increase in wages. What I will discuss more below is that this step beyond Marx’s math is the difference between a lesson about inequality (inadequate wages) and a lesson about poverty (wage-slavery). Marx was not a liberal who thought poverty was a problem of low wages. Poverty, I will suggest, should be the center of our reading of Marx’s critique and should have nothing whatsoever to do with wages except in critiquing the wage-labor relationship altogether.

2) We Deserve More… But, More What? And, What We?

Left as it is, the focus on Marx’s math alone leaves us forgetting that Marx was critiquing economic theory, not trying to prove it. He was trying to show how it failed under its own conditions and logic. But beyond this, many see his project as critiquing wage-labor as a way of thinking, which prevents us from imagining social life beyond the limits of wages.

One of the characteristic shortcomings of the surplus-value-as-wage analogy is its interpretation as proving a productive class off of which all others sponge. Thus, it is easy to misinterpret the capital-vampire figure, which are the machines of a factory in Marx’s vampire quote (link) as a “bloodsucking” class/person/group/race/etc. This is clear in the typical problem of imagining so-called domestic work (or, “social reproduction”) as unproductive. Indeed, we could try to fit this into a logic of the wage: daycare costs $X, therefore that labor is worth $X in unpaid value. But, do we really want to walk down that path? Do we want to conform our care of each other and ourselves to wage relationships? Let’s push this even further.

An additional shortcoming to the surplus-value-as-wage approach is that it leaves out all of the Malthusian problems of surplus populations that Marx fought so vehemently. If we imagine that our wages are not what they should be, it has nothing to say about the numbers of people who are currently unemployed and seemingly contribute “nothing” to the economy. Marx, throughout his body of work, spends a great deal of effort discussing how capitalist production requires those population surpluses (link). Do we really want to suggest that their ranks are not deserving of “more” because they are not producing what economic theory determines can be measured and explained in wages? Instead, we must remember that, if pushed to the next step, there is something crucially liberatory about what this math can illustrate: the ability to increase society’s total material wealth and simultaneously reduce its total magnitude of value (see Chpt1, Sect2. We can make more for less effort.

Indeed, machines decrease the amount of labor time necessary to produce things we “want” (“whether…[these wants] spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference” -link). Machines reduce the magnitude of value in the stuff we make. But, how do we work this into the surplus-value-as-wage approach? As the value produced per worker falls, does that mean we also deserve less? NO. Marx’s crucial lesson for students, scholars, and activists comes much later in Capital, in discussing the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”: Machines make more for less labor but also put people out of work; thus, we suffer and work longer as wealth becomes easier to produce. Marx sums up this paradox nicely in his notebooks for Capital:

“The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time. Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or, the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour. The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage [sic] does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.”

It is from this insight—the paradoxical increased impoverishment of society simultaneously with the ability to produce more for less—that Marx’s revolutionary critique emerges. Here we see that a view of poverty focusing on being shortchanged wages does not really get at why wages suck. Poverty we might say is, from Marx’s perspective, society’s inability to take full advantage of its cooperation and productive capacity because of the necessity to produce profit and expand capital as private property. If we “deserve more,” in this case, the “we” is everyone and the “more what” is time free from the tyranny of work, wage-labor, and the boss’s authority. For Marx, we deserve more economic freedom and as such freedom from having to conform our lives to economic necessity. We deserve more time, without having to ask for more money. This lesson is, in some ways, contrary to surplus-value-as-unpaid-wages. Students here will say, “are you suggesting that people shouldn’t have to work?!? … That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” And, the subsequent discussion—”why is that impossible? And, what would it take to become possible?”—is what finally approaches Marx’s critique of capitalism and economic theories of it.

3) Why Vampires Suck.

It is for this reason that we should never end the lesson with Marx’s math alone. In my class, I next ask why couldn’t my teacher stop working? “Because his boss wouldn’t let him,” the students say. I reply, “Really? How? …With a gun? Or threat to his family? Blackmail?” The answer is, of course, “no, with starvation.” He will starve, not because there is not enough food or the capacity to produce food but because the pressure to make a profit off of food makes his starvation necessary, if he will not work. In this sense, McKenna’s discussion of democracy must go farther as well. Where is the democratic practice of deciding how to utilize the world’s cooperation and productive capacity? Here again, the issue is not how many more dollars should workers be getting but instead how should we free ourselves from the condition of having to beg for our conditions of survival in the form of wages. Marx calls this “pauperism.” Under capitalism, we are all beggars so long as we see our world through wage-labor. This is something closer to an understanding of capitalist poverty from a Marxian perspective, which is by principle often rather circular.

But, to understand even more fully the import of Marx’s math to his overall argument and to the concept of poverty, we have to understand what the “vampires” are and why they suck. The vampires, as I mentioned, are machines (dead and congealed past labor). They are the pizza ovens and the dough-kneading machines of my teacher’s pizzeria job. Once purchased by a private owner, they not only demand that their costs be justified but they also demand low-paid workers to run them. They suck because the capital fixed in them must grow. It grows by sucking living capacity from workers for the sake of growth itself. But, further, they suck because someone who had money needed that money to grow. They invested it in a fund of some kind, which lent it to a pizza shop for equipment, and now expects interest. It is these pressures that make the dead live and suck like unholy terrors on our living capacities. Here, we might ask students to think about retirement funds and how money as investment, by demanding interest, transforms our living world into an impoverished world, dominated by and sucked by the dead. This is capital. This is the fetishism of commodities. This is a world of poverty where capitalists, machines, and workers alike are all tormented by money demanding to grow and suck in the process! And, questioning this in order to become free of the tyranny of capital, is the revolutionary lesson that Marx’s math alone does not tell us.

Clayton Rosati is an Assistant Professor at the School of Media and Communication, Bowling Green State University.


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