One of the defenses of our current capitalistic system is that it is criminals who betray the system, that otherwise it works. In some sense it borrows from Stoic thinking, that overall the cosmos is just and good, that catastrophes and wrongdoing are not intrinsic to the system, more like a brief illness or malfunction that eventually rights itself. But this is facile and reductive, like a turtle thinking it sees the world within its shell.
If we look at the criminality in other systems, say feudalism and slavery, what we see is that the misbehavior of the powerful (i.e. slave owners, feudal lords, aristocrats) does not disrupt the system. Abuse by kings, dukes, and emperors, etc. often went without punishment, and was not the primary reason for their downfall because the feudal system existed for over a thousand years in Europe after the fall of Rome. Similarly, a slave owner can mistreat his slaves at his own discretion. These are inhumane systems, but that was how the functioned. To draw a parallel to our own times, a boss can demand of workers longer hours, can poorly pay his workers, and even treat them discourteously. None of this upsets the system. One could argue that just as a slave owner who cares for his slaves might get better quality work out of his slaves, a company that cares for its workers would get better work. And this is true, but it doesn’t affect the bottom line without the ability for workers to penalize mistreatment. Wal-Mart is one of the biggest corporations in the world and makes a lot of money while poorly paying its workers and generally not caring about them. But Wal-Mart is the not the only one guilty of this. The majority of service industry jobs do not pay well. And the reason why this happens is interesting, if only because of the myriad excuses for it.
Many argue that businesses are designed to make money, and therefore have an imperative to pay as little as possible and sell as high as possible, which is called “good business.” And I agree with this. The system not only encourages this, it rewards such behavior. There is a reason why slave owners did not educate their slaves; if they had, they would be empowered, desire better conditions and a better life, and would revolt. Similarly, our system only works by having poorly educated workers. A person does not need a G.E.D. to work at Wal-Mart, and I would argue that many of the credentials we demand of workers are superfluous, which has resulted in degree inflation.
Now, many people like to argue that no one sticks a gun to a person’s head and tells them not to get an education and work at Wal-Mart, and therefore it is their own fault for working a dead end job, and therefore they should not get paid much. This was the same type of argument justified for slavery, that Africans were racially inferior and therefore suited to working the hard labor of slavery. There is a reason that the poor end up working at Wal-Mart and rich people don’t (outside of the its corporate head). Unless you believe that the poor are inherently dumber, lazier, and therefore worse and less deserving, a conundrum is to be found.
The argument that people will be paid the amount they produce (how much money they generate with their labor) is ridiculously idiotic, but it’s one that I’ve heard to justify our system. How much a person gets paid depends on their leverage with the company. Unskilled workers will always lose out against a company unless they can utilize one of their few advantages, which is numbers. Obviously I am talking about unions. It was not long ago that an unskilled worker could stand on the assembly line and bring enough money home to send his kids to college. Try that on the grocery line. So what is the difference? Why are automobile workers so much more deserving than people who flip burgers or ring up your shopping list?
They aren’t. If we believe that some people do not deserve to make a decent living even if they work a full, forty-hour work week, then we need to ask why capitalism is seen as a better system than feudalism and slavery. Either people deserve this or they don’t; it is not about jobs being entry level or that only people who can fit in our education system and pick the correct field deserve to live comfortably.
In American history books, when the topic of guilds come up, it is used as an example of worker’s organizations impeding progress, that of the mechanization of work. Well, something that doesn’t get talked about is how and why guilds, the antecedent to today’s unions, were busted. This can be seen is every country that is industrialized. The steps are the following:
- The privatization of communal farm land (see for example enclosure in the U.K. or the Dust Bowl in the U.S., which is a bit of a stretch) that forces agricultural workers into the cities for work.
- These workers undercut the guilds as scabs, being forced by necessity into low wage work for long hours and with poor conditions. The modern day sweatshops of the third world existed in the developed work too, which we are slowly falling into again.
- The ability of capitalists to produce goods quicker and at a cheaper rate is viewed as progress, but it comes at the cost of destroying the middle class, which were the skilled artisans of the guilds, and so dismantles them by absorbing their business.
Again we come to another question we really need to ask ourselves. Is it progress to be able to produce more goods for less money if it destroys the wages of other laborers, and ruins the health of the workers while demanding of them long hours? This only ended, if temporarily, in the developed world because of the reintroduction of labor unions, this time for the unskilled worker. During the industrial revolution, many workers died because of the horrible conditions. One need only look up the various lung diseases that people suffered in the mining and textile industry. It was also necessary for every member of a family work in order to survive. Today, after the anti-union policies of the Republican Party in the U.S., it is not atypical for both parents in a family (supposing that it is not a single parent household) to be required to achieve a level of economic comfort.
To return once again to understanding the criminality in systems, or the abuse of the weak by the powerful, what should become clear is that these abuses are inherent to the system. Abuse of the system does not break it. Slavery did not end because the slaves rose in revolt, it ended because the North, morally, objected to it (thanks to the efforts of former slaves and abolitionists), and the South revolted. In fact, it was the abuse of the slaves that kept them in their state of perpetual fear. Today, many workers do not protest or attempt to unionize because of the fear of reprisal. This is called hegemony, and it is does exist in our society. When we see Wall Street go awry and ruin the investments of average folk, or companies union bust, or endeavor to suppress wages and benefits, they are doing so because the system rewards them for it in the same way that drug dealers are rewarded by their efforts, regardless of the supposed criminality. It follows, then, that if we want a more egalitarian, democratic society, we need a new system. One solution is called Worker’s Self-Directed Enterprise, which I will talk about in another article.