Sunday, March 9, 2008

Capitalism and Consumption

“The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him. But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labour-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class; and it is for him to find his man – i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.”
– Karl Marx, “What are Wages? How are they Determined?"

In the context of Western intellection, there can be few fields of academic study as fictitious as that of American economic theory, as its practitioners largely have excommunicated their only credible intellectual critique from the marketplace of ideas — that critique derives from the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. To my knowledge, nowhere will their ideas be found in the U.S. secondary educational curriculum, a process accelerated after WWII with the "Red scare" and attack on "communists" championed by Joe McCarthy and other right-wing politicians in the 1950s. The McCarthy hearings were a media event, much like the hanging of skulls on posts alongside roadways in ancient times or lynchings in recent history; a real witch-hunt and vampire experience. Since this great propagandizing watershed in U.S. history, the public and the academic establishment largely was kowtowed and the political elite, acting for and on behalf of the military industrial complex, ramped up the fear levels of most Americans. Consequently, our educational system was designed to first and foremost graduate sheep, making the U.S. population one, if not the, most self-absorbed and misinformed on the planet.

The miracle is that this strategy did not fully succeed, though the self-absorption rate of xenophobia in the United States remains the highest of any place on the planet in the 21st century, with Germany and France attempting to catch up. In the U.S. one need only to monitor the machinations and negative commentary regarding the immigration issue today to understand some of what other Americans went through in the 50s whose only crime was that they valued ideas. Of course, school age children were taught that this WAS a war of ideas without being given an intellectual diet containing all the ideas. It was only when I entered college and took an economics class that I began to understand what the TV and propaganda farce was about. I compare the majority of Americans to the colony of ants in the really serious, must-see cartoon film that's not just for your kids: Antz.

General Mandible: [Z has broken through to the surface where Mandible and his soldiers wait for them to be drowned] Let go! Don't you understand? It's for the good of the colony!
Z: What are you saying? We are the colony!
[Mandible is about to strike Z when Cutter knocks him aside]
General Mandible: Cutter, what are you doing?
Colonel Cutter: Something I should have done a long time ago.
[extends his hand to the worker ants]
Colonel Cutter: *This* is for the good of the colony, General.
General Mandible: You useless, ungrateful maggot! *I* am the colony!

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, there were few Americans willing to come to the aid of those targeted as "Reds" in the 1950s. One of them, in his own indubitable way, however, was the late great Paul Robeson.

American economists like to say that economics is about scarce or limited resources, that not all human needs can be met, particularly yours and mine, and that the role of the economist is to determine the most efficient and equitable ways to distribute these resources. If this is the case, and the decisions are based on merit, why does that determination always insure that those who control the capital always get the lion’s share, and that labor is relegated to the garbage heap? Well, of course, that's the way the system is designed.

Some American economists even claim that their work is “science” based upon human behavior. Well, it is to some degree based upon human behavior, but that behavior has been carefully selected in favor of predators, rather than humanists or naturalists from which the works of Marx and Engels derive. For it is not “human behavior” writ large in world history who decides on the allocation of resources, scarce or not, but a mere few who have monolithic control of planetary resources and their derivatives by their control over capital and politics, but who, nonetheless, are able to mobilize other subordinated humans to work against their own self-interests either out of ignorance, powerlessness, or an innate scavenger nature.

Wealth consumes power or to paraphrase Marx's observation relative to history from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “Economics does nothing, people do.” Economics does not decide who eats and who does not; humans make this decision. In short, all economic systems are first and foremost political, but of all economic systems that humans have devised capitalism is the most predatory, predicated on infinitely expanding market share, increasing both production and consumption on a planet where the only thing that is not finite is capitalist greed.

Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century American rhetorician and human rights leader, knew intimately the tyranny of consumption as a self-emancipated slave. He had these words to say about hierarchically-structured systems:

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they would oppress…. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get." [Douglass, 1845]

More than anything else, Capitalism is about who controls the “gross consumption” of resources – natural, human, manufactured, or spiritual. A few statistical bullets will suffice to support this observation:
  1. It is estimated that "the richest 225 people in the world today control more wealth than the poorest 2.5 billion people. And that the three richest people in the world control more wealth than the poorest 48 nations. A.H. Bill, Facing the Future: People and the Planet. 1998.

  2. The U.S. spent half a trillion dollars in 1998: 50% went toward the military budget; 6% was spent on education; health, the environment, and justice each received 5%, transportation less than 3%; economic development almost 2%; and agriculture and energy less than 1% each. A.H. Bill, Facing the Future: People and the Planet.

  3. Americans constitute 5% of the world's population, but consume 24% of the world's energy. On average, one American consumes as much energy as 2 Japanese, 6 Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians, or 370 Ethiopians. P. Ehrlich, Population Bomb [PBS website– website now retired but book by same name should contain this information].

  4. 250 million people have died of hunger-related causes in the past quarter-century — roughly 10 million each year.

  5. 700 to 800 million people, perhaps even as many as a billion, don't get enough food to support normal daily activities.

  6. 1.7 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and, by the year 2000, the number of urban dwellers without access to safe water and sanitation services is expected to grow by 80%.

  7. One-third of the world's fish catch and more than one-third of the world's total grain output are fed to livestock.

  8. 38 million people are poor in the United States; 19 million of these are working!

Afrothetic's First Law of Consumption: Humans are born from consumption, live by consumption and, at death, are by-products of consumption. Corollaries: “Dust to dust, ash to ashes.” "We are what we eat."

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