John Dunn

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Free Atoms Trapped in Economic Time

Friday, 23 Nov 2012

The upshot of all this is that there is an observable tendency towards an equity between growing numbers of single worker households. As well as being commodities on the labour market, which describes most of us already, we will soon all be equal and interchangeable commodities on a totally flexible labour market. Legislation endorses the equality between the sexes, races and the ages as worker atoms move increasingly freely between jobs. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the temporary worker who is allocated by employment agencies to sectors of the economy most in need of labour. Workers can be allocated more and more flexibly because there is little to choose between them as a result of the capacity paradox. Concomitantly, there is little to choose between the jobs on offer to the workers.

Yes, we are all commodities now, dispatched in an instant to where needed most in the economy. In as much as we are all commodities, then we are all equal. It is an equality based on the free exchange of equal values, i.e. very much a liberal capitalist equality. Culturally and politically, was not this the economic equality dreamed of by the Levellers, Thomas Paine, the French Revolutionists, the founding fathers of the United States, the communists and the political Left generally, i.e. a world in which we each have individual and equal human rights?

However, in applying these liberal principles to our abstract capitalist economy, we arrive at an equality between workers that applies in a society where all time is economic time. (Think of the 24/7 society!) Technology has not freed men and women from economic slavery. Driven down to subsistence level by the competitive forces of the globalised labour market and the free movement of capital,the individual worker will soon be committing all time to economic activity. (As we noted earlier, subservience to the economic is already being taken to the extreme and beyond, i.e. to the point where the reproduction of labour is being ruled out financially – leading to the very real competition now, between western capitalist interests represented by national governments, to import workers). In an abstract capitalism, all time is economic time. Even in the actually existing capitalism of today, freedom outside of the economic is increasingly restricted.

In abstract capitalism, men and women, driven to subsistence level in a global labour market, have no non-economic space available in which to accumulate and enjoy wealth as individuals. Any accumulated wealth in a lifetime will be eroded in old age as the cost of the care of individuals – remember there are fewer family support structures in an atomised society – falls upon the individuals themselves until they have nothing left. Only at that point does the state intervene with the minimum subsistence support required to see individuals through to death. The worker in an atomised society is driven to maximise working time and is assisted to this end by shifts in social values that accommodate a ‘24/7’, 365 days a year culture and no retirement. For individuals to spend all available time in paid labour and then to die having accumulated nothing is not only the epitome of capitalist efficiency, but is also proof positive of the labour theory of value. Individuals, whatever appearances, work to subsistence levels over a lifetime and have no personal control over their working lives. There are no choices.

John Dunn.

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