23 December, 2009

The Price of Christmas

I see that a priest in York, England has recommended that his parishioners steal the things they need this Christmas since no-one else is going to help them out. Is conspiracy to commit a mortal sin a sin too? The theology could get tricky. However, the humanity is plain and simple. The plight of the homeless in the UK - while not nearly so bas as that of the homeless in the USA - is heart-wrenching. No decent person can witness it without revolting against the system that creates and sustains it.

And that system is capitalism.

Christmas may be a good time to remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The food heaped on our plates, the mostly-unwanted gifts, the treats and indulgences, the lights and the shiny, plastic baubles, all have to be paid for.

In a capitalist society, the payment is made by the consumer - you and me - from money we get by selling our labour to the people who control the capital. They get their money by selling the product of our labour back to us in the form of meals, plastic baubles and so on. The magic of capitalism is that, by this process, capital increases. Somehow value is added by the act of production. Where does it come from?

It comes from various kinds of exploitation, but two in particular: the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of the environment. Workers are exploited by not paying them anything like the value of their product would suggest they should be paid. The excess goes to the owners of the capital. These days, when workers in the consuming countries ask to be paid more fairly, their jobs, and the exploitation, are moved overseas to places where workers are paid even less and can be more thoroughly exploited. That this leaves people with no source of income because they have lost the ability to sell their labour, might be seen as a bad thing, but for capitalism it is good, it means that labour becomes a plentiful commodity that can now be bought more cheaply. (This is also one of the reasons why capitalists like population growth.) It means that the workers who were once in danger of earning enough that they were no longer so badly exploited, but who lost their jobs, are now forced get new jobs at lower wages and be properly exploited again. To keep capital growing, exploitation of workers has to be increasingly efficient and widespread. It is called 'productivity'.

Even so, you can only take the exploitation of workers so far before the rate of increase declines. For capital to keep on growing you have to keep pumping new wealth into the system. That's where the environment comes in. Along with people's work, the environment is the source of all wealth. Fuels and materials dug from the ground, animals and plants taken or farmed in the seas and on the land, are the raw feedstock of capitalism. To keep capital growing, the people with access to these resources, must keep acquiring them in ever-larger amounts. The consumption of raw materials by our 'primary industries' is nothing less than the consumption of our planet. With increasing speed, capitalism is taking whatever is usable from the world, using it to fuel growth, and dumping the rest as polluting slag - on the land, in the seas, and in the air. What's more, like the exploitation of workers, the exploitation of the environment must also be driven to ever-greater efficiency.

It is clear to everyone who thinks about these things, that capitalism cannot survive forever - or even for very much longer - without finding more things to exploit. The 'global market' has now, pretty much included every possible worker on the planet in capitalism's web of exploitation. There is plenty of of opportunity for growth there still, but the resource - us - is finite. The environment is starting to show signs of breaking down under the strain. Global warming, peak oil, extinctions of fish stocks, and global food shortages, are all signs that we are using up what is there at an unsustainable rate.

Technology has always been capitalism's friend. The need for more efficient exploitation has always driven technological development. The people who control capital - and the people who depend on its products - are in a precarious position just now. It looks as if the environment might collapse, or run out of key materials, before technological fixes have been found for these problems. We need new places to exploit - the asteroids? other planets? - before this one runs dry. We need ways to keep the environment patched up long enough to bring these new resources online. And, we need more efficient ways to exploit labour (global recessions are good for capitalism, but they do carry the risk of revolution.)

Capitalism is great for the owners of capital, it's not bad for many of the rest of us either (as long as we temper its worst excesses with democracy,) but it isn't a free lunch. In the end, we will have to pay the price for all this wealth.

Some, like the homeless, the people on welfare, and the working poor, already pay that price for us. It is by putting a certain proportion of us in such misery that capitalism ensures the low cost of labour and hence adequate returns on investment for the owners of capital. The suffering of the starving and the homeless in our cities is helping to put the lights on our trees, the iPods in our pockets, and the piles of food on our plates this Christmas.

Is it really so bad if they snatch a can of ravioli from a supermarket shelf in their desperation?

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