Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Other Red Pill: Tense Relations

In the previous installment of the other red pill, we looked briefly at the overarching premise of the material conception of history, which is that the way in which people sustain themselves economically form the basis of society and culture.  More or less.  Nothing is ever so simple as that, of course, and it would be a mistake to believe that it is, but I'm sure its importance is indisputable to any honest historian, economist or sociologist.

There's no real way of sugar coating what is to come now.  And that's Marxist terminology and a fair bit of it.  And a few general accounting and financial management principles on top of that.  In my four plus decades on this Earth, I've studied a fair bit of both.  So keep this page bookmarked for those nights when you really need something to put you to sleep.  But it's useful stuff to know because, for reasons that will be explained in subsequent installments of the other red pill, this is going to be an important way to look at social issues for people interested in being able to lock horns with right wingers and regressive leftists with any hope of obtaining decisively positive results.  So here goes:

As mentioned in the previous section, we evolved to be social animals and productive animals.  Some of us more than others, no doubt.  Groups of people have advantages over lone individuals in that they can have a division of labor that allows for things to get done more efficiently.  Anyone who's ever done work in a group can be forgiven for believing otherwise.  But we take for granted just how much this is done already.  If you actually have a job, besides being lucky these days, you have a recognizably specialized niche in the overall economy.  No one person does it all.

So let's say you're one of the lucky ones and you work full time these days.  You're a wage earning schmuck somewhere.   We're going to follow you around a bit to get a glimpse of how this whole system works.  Once at work - in a plant, warehouse or office you don't own, situated on land you don't own, you typically use tools of some sort - machines, computers and so on.  You don't own those either.  These Marx referred to as the means or instruments of labor.  So that they don't sound too Marxist, the guys you work for probably refer to the same things as capital assets, or something similar.

While at work, you utilize your labor power along with the means of labor to act upon what are called the subjects of labor - raw materials, raw data, inventory and so on, with the intent of adding value somehow.  You don't own any of this either.  If this doesn't sound terribly exciting, that's because it usually isn't.  That's why a lot of people, yourself possibly among them, spend a fair bit of your day watching the clock.  Or reading blogs like this.  Don't let your boss catch you, or you'll end up in what Marx called the Industrial Reserve Army.

Now pay attention, because this is central to it all: The instruments of labor, labor power and the subjects of labor together are referred to as the means of production.  Did I mention you don't own any of it?

Since you don't own any of this, who does?  This is a more complex question.  Chances are, it's not the guy yelling at you to get back to work.  He's probably got somebody looking over him telling him to not to goof off as much as he does either.  Not that you feel sorry for him, of course.  He's still a jerk.  But he's not the tophat and tails capitalist that Marxist jargon brings to mind.  Business ownership structures are complex and varied, but at some point a bank expecting repayment or shareholders expecting growth or dividends are the ultimate owners.  Taken together, all of the kinds of relationships that people enter into for productive purposes are the relations of production, and they vary largely by ownership, or lack thereof, of capital.

Now pay attention again, because another important concept here: all of the people in any society whose jobs have the same or very similar relations of production are what is really meant by the term class.  And all this time you thought it referred to something along the lines of taste or decorum.  Marx's most famous examples of classes were the bourgeoisie - those who owned the means of production, and the proletariat - those who did not.

As mentioned above, things are more complicated than that in actuality.  Bourgeoisie and proletariat are best thought of us a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive absolutes, though they can be.  For example, you can have a "functional" capitalist, who manages the means of production but is also herself an "employee" of a higher level executive or board of directors, and a "rentier" capitalist, who profits entirely off of  ownership.

But as concepts, a class that makes its living entirely from profits generated due to ownership of capital, and a class that completely lacks capital and has no choice but to sell its time and labor in exchange for a wage, are useful to us.  The class structure of society together with its means of production are what is meant by the term mode of production.  Capitalism is so called because it is capital - the above mentioned means of labor - are what really makes the world go round.

As you can probably imagine, capitalism is a better deal for the bourgeoisie than it is for the proletariat.

You're a lucky fellow if your relations of production are a source of happiness in your life.  If your employees are smart and productive, if your boss is decent and appreciative, if your banker or landlord is a someone you'd love to have a glass of wine with or anything like that, consider yourself fortunate.  Oftentimes they're not, but not because they're fundamentally bad people, although they can be.  The economic relations of production naturally make a lot of these relationships antagonistic.

Our full time worker, however nice he is and however decent his supervisor may be, is ultimately listed as an expense on the company income statement.  Expenses are things that people like to keep low, and not because they're greedy evil capitalists, or for that matter, (((greedy evil capitalists.)))  It's about something much simpler than that: nobody likes to spend more than they have to for the things they need.  Especially if their boss expects frugality on their part.

Which is not to say that you - the worker - have no value to your employers.  Okay, maybe you personally have no value to them, but the job you do does.  This is because labor power is needed in order to make all those shiny capital assets do what they're there to do.  Which is to make people other than you rich.  Isn't it nice to feel useful?  But it's not a total bust - you do get a wage for it, and so long as you're producing more than you're costing the company, you're fine.

Contrast this with the above mentioned means of labor, or capital assets.  Accountants, managers and other fascinating people of that sort like these things, because they add value to the business.  They look good on balance sheets, and balance sheets that don't look good cause problems.

To get balance sheets looking good, bossy types of people want to have revenues exceed expense (and keep in mind that you are an expense) so that the company can post a net income.  Net income can then be used to either pay debt, acquire more assets (of which you are not) or increase the owner or shareholder equity in the business.  Balance sheets are evaluated largely by how much debt the company has compared to its assets and/or its equity - the less the better, generally.  They don't achieve this by giving you a raise.

Like the good German he was, Karl Marx had a word for everything.  The money you as a proletariat need to generate over and above your salary in order to make sure that income statement looks good is referred to as surplus value.  Which, for reasons we'll explore in future installments - is not necessarily always a bad thing.  The tense and conflicting interests of various classes, compounded by the lack of power and control that the lower classes suffered he referred to as alienation.

That's been your daily dose of the other red pill.  Now get back to work, you prole!

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