Discussion Groups Day: “The Capitalist Creed.”

Yesterday we broke into groups to examine Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen’s criticisms of the assumptions undergirding “the capitalist creed.”

There were five basic assumptions they criticized. What follows are the assumptions (in italics) and then the criticisms offered in The Subsistence Perspective. 

Please read these over. Since we rushed through them at the end of class, we will discuss them again on Wednesday.

1. Man is selfish.

  • The authors argue cite influential modern philosophers (Hobbes, Smith, and Locke) for formulating this view of human nature. They argue that “if the fathers of capitalist theory (Hobbes, Smith, Locke) had chosen a mother instead of a single bourgeois male as the smallest economic unit for their theoretical constructions they would not have been able to formulate the axiom of the selfish nature of human beings the way they did.” In other words: those who say that human beings are fundamentally selfish are starting from a narrow vision of what a human being is. They are likely starting from examining how people behave on the competitive “market,” rather than, say, how they interact with children and those they care about. If we began from these other aspects of human life (which are just as real as any competitive, selfish behavior), then we would develop a different theory of human nature.
  • They go on to suggest that those who claim human beings are fundamentally selfish are aware of this problem. They say “the Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century were clearly aware of the difficulty of the capitalist philosophy of self-interested, competitive, rationally calculating, individualist homo oeconomicus would create for society. What would happen, they asked, to mercy, peace, love, generosity, etcetera?” Mies and Bennholt-Thomsen suggest that this difficulty was “solved” by “separating the public from the private sphere and creating two different kinds of ethics, one for the private, the other for the public sphere.” (53) In order to understand this, we discussed what is called “the real world” — the world in which you are expected to set aside your compassion, your ideals, your values, and do whatever it takes to “succeed” in your career. (We also noted that “the real world” doesn’t want you to do this overtly. Rather, you are expected to “network,” to pretend you have compassion and ideals and are interested in “relationships,” when in fact you are supposed to use these in a self-serving way). Who benefits from this so-called “real world”?

2. Resources are scarce.

  • First, Mies and Bennholt-Thomsen cite anthropological evidence that shows many pre-industrial (and even pre-agricultural!) societies saw the resources of the world as abundant rather than scarce.
  • Next, they argue that “the market-industrial system institutes scarcity” (my italics). It institutes it by making the aim of all production the growth of money. This means that there is no concept of sufficiency — enough is never enough, by the very logic of the system. If all our needs are satisfied, then, for the capitalist system, that is a crisis. It is a terrible thing that must be avoided at all costs, because it would mean the economy would stop growing! The perception of scarcity is required in order to justify producing and selling more and more.
  • Drawing on the work of anthropologist Marshal Sahlins, this “perception of scarcity” is the heart of the issue. A society that has simple needs can be tremendously wealthy with relative ease. Once those needs are met and distributed, everything else is luxury, affluence, and used toward creating a more satisfying or interesting life. But if we begin with the perception that our needs can never be satisfied, then we also make wealth impossible — we are only ever raising the bar, creating ever more elaborate needs that we have to work more and more to fulfill.

3. Human needs are infinite.

  • This assumption “stands in total contradiction to our daily experience… All our basic needs for food clothing, shelter, warmth etcetera can be satisfied. They are not insatiable. Even so-called ‘higher wants’ – for instance for knowledge, culture, mobility, friendship, recognition, respect – love- are not infinite. They can be satisfied here and now.”
  • This is a problem for an economic regime that demands constant growth. “To solve this problem of finite needs in a finite world, capitalism had to transform needs into wants and addictions by producing ever more fashionable ‘satisfiers’. Only when thirst will no longer be quenched by water but only by Coca-Cola or wine or beer is it possible to extend the production of these and other beverages limitlessly.” Marketing, from this perspective, is the art of transforming our relatively simple needs into dependencies on products that must be purchased. For most of us, these are the only ways we’ve ever known to satisfy our needs and desires.
  • They describe a part of this process as “compensatory consumption”: we “consume” certain products because other needs are not really being satisfied. For example, we may lack meaningful relationships or a sense of purpose in our actions and so we become depressed. And since we don’t have the freedom to create those meaningful relationships or sense of purpose (because our whole lives have become about earning a paycheck), we spend our evenings drinking or eating food, just to gain a sense of comfort. My guess is that this is a familiar experience in contemporary life.
  • “In a subsistence society,” they say, “all human needs would be really satisfied. This means that people would not have to to turn to pseudo-satisfiers which at the same time stimulate further compensatory consumption because real needs are never satisfied. Pseudo-satisfiers and compensatory consumption lose their attraction if people and communities themselves produce what they need, and see in their own activity a connection between productive activity and consumption.” (my italics). I’m wondering what you all think of this thesis, in particular.

4. The economy must permanently grow — only “productive” work is work.

  • This assumption is important because, as I mentioned, it seems to go unquestioned in all political discussions today. In other words, there is no place in contemporary mainstream political debate where it is not assumed that “economic growth” is an unqualified good thing. But if the authors are right, this is an unjustifiable “article of faith” in the neoliberal capitalist creed.
  • First, they point out that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is not actually a measure of the work being performed by the society: “the bulk of the work done on this planet is not included in this indicator, namely the work of housewives and mothers, the work of subsistence peasants and artisans, most of the work in the informal sector, particularly in the [global] South, and, of course, the self-generating activity of mother nature.” The GDP, which is concerned with money, excludes all the labor being performed that is not done for wages.
  • But what the GDP includes is just as problematic: “destructive work — like wars, environmental and other accidents, oil spills, arms production, trade and so on — is included in GDP, because it ‘creates’ more wage labour, more demand and more economic growth. The oil spill of the Exxon Valdez along the Canadian Pacific coast some years ago has resulted in the biggest rise so far in Canada’s GNP [Gross National Product] — because it required an enormous amount of work to undo the damage caused by this catastrophe.” (57) We might also add that warzones have long been big-business, and have been transformed into markets for not only weapons manufacturers, but also for private companies (like Burger King and Pizza Hut) that provide food and services for occupying forces.
  • They cite the circuit of capitalist production that we discussed a few weeks ago: M-C-M’. One starts with money, exchanges it for a commodity, and then exchanges that commodity for a larger sum of money. They write, “in this logic lies the basic clue for the understanding of the capitalist growth mania, not in insatiable human greed, as some thing.” That is, “greed” is a moral problem of individuals. What the authors are pointing to, however, is an assumption that structures political and economic thinking real — the demand for constant growth —  which requires that people produce and sell more and more, regardless of their personal values. They are just doing their jobs.
  • The subsistence perspective puts forward a different way of thinking about labour and productivity. Rather than only valuing labor performed for money, the subsistence perspective only calls “productive” the work “that really produces, maintains, and enhances life, not the work that simply contributes to money ‘giving birth’ to more money. Life will no longer be a side-effect of extended accumulation; instead it will be the main goal of work. This life will be the outcome of mutual, respectful, loving, caring relations between humans and nature, between old and young, women and men.” (58)

5. Increases in productivity are desirable and infinite. Technological progress will compensate for all ecological damage done.

  • Since computers have become widespread, “productivity” has increased tremendously. The authors point out that this simple conception of “increased productivity” leaves a lot out of the picture: “We see that the impressive labour productivity at the top of the iceberg economy [recall the chart on page 31] has its dark underside in millions and millions of workers, many of them women, who continue to do labour-intensive necessary ‘shit-work’ to keep the whole production and reproduction process going.” The authors are trying to get us to understand the individual technologies we purchase and use within a wider global context: “‘Increases in productivity’ cannot only be understood as simply the new inventions of scientists and engineers. These inventions need the cheapest labour to turn them into mass consumer articles. The superexploitation of Asian women in particular has to be seen as one of the factors when one talks of the computer revolution and the growth of productivity.” (60) We could also add the tremendous environmental problems associated with the mining of metals for producing electronics and the disposal of out-dated gadgets.
  • Next, they take on the argument that “progress of technology is good and necessary because it frees people from hard and monotonous work and enables them to produce more in a shorter time.” In response, they say “this argument ignores that science and technology are not being used by capitalists to make work lighter and more agreeable to workers but to save labour costs [i.e., to replace workers by machines or make one worker able to do the work that it used to take 5 or 10 to perform], to have better control over the labour process [by making them more easily surveilled; by turning workers jobs into making sure machines function smoothly rather than using any creative powers of their own] and to beat competitors by means of higher labour productivity.” In other words, in the context where the purpose of production is the constant growth of money, adding new technologies don’t actually make anyone’s job any easier. They are expected to work just as hard in order to produce more and more.
  • The authors point out, however, that they are not “anti-technology,” only that they are against the current way that technological “progress” is conceived. From the subsistence perspective, they suggest, many new technologies would arise that would enable people to meet their needs with less labour. “Technological progress” would be defined as those techniques or tools that contribute most meaningfully to the production and reproduction of life.

Whew. Long one.


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