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serve the people

November 15, 2014

I haven’t been inspired to write much about politics lately, but I thought this Jacobin article was rather interesting in that it helps to illustrate the underlying moral foundation of capitalism, one making the last, first, and the first, last. With all of our technological innovations and productive capabilities, the question arises, Why don’t we live in a world of material security for all? What’s stopping us?

The obstacle, in my opinion, is an increasingly outdated mode of production and the ideology underlying it. Our productive capacities are such that we no longer have a material necessity for capitalist wage-labour and artificial scarcity, but the demand for profit creates an economic system that consistently depresses our productive capabilities and produces artificial scarcity, limiting the production and consumption of commodities to only that which can realize profit.

Just looking around at the world today and all the thing we’ve accomplished, I think it’s fairly obvious that we’ve reached an epoch of potential material abundance via the technological advancements and innovations of the past. Nevertheless, the old masters are refusing to let go of their death grip on wealth and power, their ownership of the means of production, finance, etc., stalling our transition to a post-capitalist society. And in many ways, we, too, are stalling that transition by buying into the dominate ideology of the ruling class.

I think the growth of this ideology partially has its roots in the early days of capitalism, being influenced by a combination of factors including the emergence of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ in conjunction with the enclosure of English commons, anti-idleness and poverty legislation, poorhouses, and the transition of people (often forced) from serfdom into wage-labour. In this process, the idea of making money, and especially the idea of capital accumulation, took on a moral framework in which being idle (i.e., not making money) was seen as something immoral and sinful. In essence, wage-labour became something almost sacred. And this attitude wasn’t just limited to the growth of capitalism in Europe, but made its way to the New World as well. For example, the ethics of hard work and accumulation can be found in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who coined the phrase “time is money”:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. […] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.

But it’s not just the ruling elite who turn a blind eye to poverty and deprivation, nor isn’t only the ruling class who thinks of the poor, the homeless, and the least among us as parasites infesting our society. As Marx writes in The Germany Ideology, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” meaning that “[t]he class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” Hence, a society’s culture, religion, and political institutions will be heavily influenced by the ideas of those who “regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age.”

For example, I think that Jane Devin’s 2012 article, “Walmart Greeter Buys 6-Pack of Beer & Is Condemned” (which, for some reason, has disappeared),” does a decent job of illustrating a common double standard in regard to how today’s self-identified ‘middle class’ judges both the rich and poor, a pseudo-moral judgmentalism that I think ultimately stems from an ideology dominated by wealthy, ruling-class elites. The growing trend to, in her words, “flog the poor for their perceived failings and abuses, while at the same time [ignoring] the capricious excesses of the rich” is evidence of this; and I think the self-made myth and the meritocracy myth are two examples of ideas that originate with the ruling class and, due to their ideological dominance, influence the rest of society.

It may seem like there’s no alternative, that we’ve reached the ‘end of history’ and the final phase of our socio-cultural evolution; but I honestly believe we have the capacity to create a world characterized by equality and material abundance in which things like distinctions of rich and poor and oppression truly become superfluous—one that no longer caters to one class of owners, but to the needs of all.

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