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GegenStandpunkt

Work and Wealth

I.

In a market economy, the purpose of work is not to supply mankind with the variety of useful goods it needs, with material wealth, but to make money. All members of bourgeois society, across all classes and social ranks, are in agreement with the same economic objective of acquiring property in the form of money. For it holds equally true for all that the satisfaction of needs does not depend solely on the existence of useful things but rather on the title to them, on the right to exclude others from them — on property. And it is as property that the needed products of labor come into this world, as objects of a private right of disposal that are withheld to begin with from those in material need of them.

That is why there is one difference that decides the economic fate of the members of this egalitarian moneymaking society: whether they already have money or first have to earn some. Those who have to work first in order to acquire some property, because the material wealth of society belongs to others, need somebody who has money and pays them for their labor. This necessity confronts them with the fact that their work is only very conditionally a means for them to acquire some well-earned money that provides a bit of access to the world of commodities. In order to perform this service for them, their work must definitely prove itself a means for their employer — for his identical goal. So, those who work for money serve property doubly: their own and that of someone else. And vice versa: those in a market economy who have enough money are in a position to provide a money income to others, and augment their own property through the services of labor they buy.

In its irrepressible egalitarianism, the market economy counts both sides among its “gainfully employed.” Yet everyone is clear about the different results of labor for those who “employ” it and those “employed” to perform it. Labor creates property that increases already existing property; it provides the worker with money that will never turn him into a property owner in any real sense. Since people work for money, it is not money that serves work as a useful expedient, but work that serves money as its source. Hence what becomes of work in a market economy is exclusively determined by the use that property acting as capital makes of it.

1.

If the economic life of nations were all about people optimally providing for themselves with the least effort, then their needs would be ascertained and a suitable division of labor organized for providing the necessary and desired goods. The only economic problems would concern those of the organization of work, the appropriate technology and the smooth transport of goods; intelligent people, who in the prevailing market economy have to plan and carry out the most absurd and complicated “production strategies” and “marketing strategies,” would merely have to answer the comparatively trivial questions of how to produce the wealth of society in a people-friendly way, and make it generally available. Nobody would make an issue out of whether it would “work in reality,” because the purpose set by society would be the answer.[1]

Things are different in a market economy — and by the way, nobody asks whether it is “realistic,” not to mention expressing any doubts about the prevailing social purpose merely because what this society is all about doesn’t come true for a good many people. A market economy is about making money, the more the better. All members of bourgeois society see eye to eye on this goal: “low income” and “well-to-do,” small businessmen and trade unionists, capitalists and civil servants all agree that it is the most natural thing in the world that people work, manage, produce or provide a service in order to get a wage, a profit, a royalty, a salary — in short: money.[2] What they then do with their money is strictly their business. After all, money gives them a bit of real freedom; it opens up the — admittedly limited — possibility of any kind of pleasure, offering access to an inexhaustible world of commodities. That is the good side, what everyone likes about making money.

Wage earners, at least the vast majority of them, are quick to make acquaintance with the other side, too: once their sum of money is used up, they no longer have access to the wealth of society. The desired and needed goods are still there; they are just not available. Money’s potential to satisfy all needs is then by no means a real possibility to satisfy even a single one of them.

This difference between what money promises and what it delivers has its quantitative aspect and a principle. The former asserts itself in the limitedness of the sum of money earned, so that in practice all problems boil down to just one: earning more. This overriding and general necessity of life in a market economy reveals the absurd nature of this mode of production: everything a person needs, though produced, is not available; property separates products from those who need them. That is the whole purpose for which products are produced: in order to belong to businessmen who neither need them personally nor intend to consume them, and to be withheld from those who are dependent on them. For it is only in this way that the economic operation from which the market economy takes its name comes to prevail extensively and exclusively: money has to change hands for commodities to reach those who need them. This wasn’t thought up as, say, a clever method for distributing goods. On the contrary: whatever is produced is property, the useful article is therefore nothing but the bearer of an excluding power of disposal; a power of disposal that in no way is intended to cling to its object, but to separate from it, to become an abstract and purely private power of access that has its reality and quantitative measure in money. That is why produced objects cannot be “distributed” to those who need them in any way other than through sale; it is not until these objects are sold that the purpose of production is realized definitively, though the material form of the product has long since been finished. This material form doesn’t matter at all, or rather matters only as a means to an end; what is actually produced in this form is the money to be realized with it. That is the value the owner is after. That is why the production of goods isn’t the endpoint of the whole operation, leaving society content and a good deal wealthier in terms of production and consumption. Instead, property establishes the general necessity to earn money, by whatever means, to be able to acquire the produced goods: no purchase, no use. Productive work itself is defined, quite separately from and independent of what it creates, as a variant of work, as gainful employment to be precise, that provides access to the world of products only through the money it earns. Property fundamentally and radically severs the production of wealth from the availability of useful goods, separating work from use, and use from need, and inserts itself into all these equations as the determining factor, turning them into inequalities: the purpose of all work is to obtain property, since benefit lies in property alone — this counts as the first truism of economic reason.

The forced identity between benefit and property imposes a peculiar logic on the economic activities of the society subsumed under it. For one thing, there is a hierarchy of needs that arises when the private possession of money determines the satisfaction of needs: formally, nothing but private preference holds sway; within the bounds of acquired property, of course; though how a person budgets is a private matter.[3] In actuality, every need becomes a dependent variable of private purchasing power, and as long as this mode of production lasts will there be ever anew an “immediate juxtaposition of poverty and wealth” in differing orders of magnitude to gape at. The same applies to what is called the “social division of labor” — there is certainly no doubt that producing is done “socially” in a market economy; the manufactured commodities are not destined for self-supply but for sale and, in that respect, for general demand. But the necessary connection between the various branches of production does not stem from material relations among them as social suboperations, but results from the negative relation between private property owners, who refuse all systematic cooperation, but then again need each other as paying customers. Thus it is the private power of money that establishes the necessary connection; once this power has been wielded thoroughly enough, the result looks just like the ingenious cooperation of productive market participants.[4] And finally, that the purpose of all activity in a market economy is moneymaking leads to a fairly perverse relation to work: in a market economy, work no longer ranks as the drudgery it is and always will be, as effort to be reduced as much as possible, but becomes a purpose itself. After all, work creates property to the extent that it takes place; its benefit is not measured in the product it creates, but in the money it earns, and in this respect and at every level of income in the amount of work done. In a society thoroughly organized on the basis of a division of labor, the task of creating real wealth available to everyone would be finished at some point, and given the current level of productivity, finished pretty quickly. Work for money, on the other hand, in principle never ceases: the interest in it taking place is insatiable.[5] That people who have to do the producing cannot get around this “aspect” of work for money in practice, namely that they wear themselves out doing it and sacrifice their lifetimes to it — this “aspect” plays no part in the logic of work for money, and is a first hint that these people at any rate are not the beneficiaries of a market economy, and that it was not to please them that property was instituted as the purpose of work.

Consequently, the generally binding equation of benefit and property works out to be general and binding only in the negative sense that all benefit depends on acquired property. For it to work out in a positive way, for acquired property to guarantee real benefit, the quantity of disposable, private property must attain a very specific quality.

2.

Since people work to earn money; since the productive activities that create the wealth of society have nothing further to do with their products because they are concerned with one product alone, namely moneymaking; since this purpose is so taken for granted that conversely any activity that brings in money is called “work” — it is general knowledge that government ministers, artists and stockbrokers go “to work” just the same as those who have taken up the occupation of “worker” — and nobody wants to see any fundamental differences here; then there is one particular difference that is all the more important: whether someone already has money or not.

— Those who have no property in a world where all useful goods are somebody’s property cannot simply set to work all by themselves to get some of it; for they lack the necessary means — which are property too, after all. In order not to perish under the equation of benefit and property, they need a property owner with means of production who pays them for making themselves useful with these means — useful to him, of course; why else should he pay? After all, he’s also out to acquire money, not to give it away. People dependent on gainful employment, having no property, have to serve this interest as well so that they can make money themselves. With their work, they have to create property for their employer over and above what he already has in order to get a bit of his property for themselves. The purely private purpose of the worker, getting money for himself, is not altered in the least by this; it only shows what it means to earn money without already having enough of it. Work then becomes a double source of money: for those who perform it, on condition that it makes the better-endowed side richer, the one with money. These two benefits of work are therefore not exactly equivalent: for people wanting to take part in a market economy without having property, working is certainly the sole means of making money at their disposal; but, strictly speaking, it is not their means at all. Only to the extent to which and as long as a business owner sees a way to use their work for himself, as his means of making money, does work become their means. They produce property, in fact — contrary to the sense of the word — somebody else’s.

— And vice versa. A person disposing over enough property can turn it into his source of income by investing it in a business and providing an income to people who need one — and who in return work there and produce saleable things; value that belongs to him in accordance with his rights as a property owner and that, once sold, increases his financial assets. By using his property this way, an owner makes money without having to create it himself: he gets others to produce his property

Thus the equation of property and benefit works out for enterprising owners of property: correctly invested, property proves its worth as an adequate means for increasing itself through other people’s work, that is, as a relation of production; it functions as capital.

The people who do the work likewise have what they wanted and need: their own money in their pockets. The snag is that their property is too small to last particularly long. No sooner has it been earned than it must be spent right away to procure the necessities of life — thus in large part flowing back to capitalist businessmen who thereby realize the value of their commodities in money. It must be spent since nothing produced by the workers themselves is at their disposal; they even have to acquire the products of their own labor in exchange for money; if they want to use them, they have to purchase them out of their wages. So for workers, property remains the exclusion from the wealth they themselves produce; it is the negative condition they must bow to in order to benefit from the wealth they create; it constitutes somebody else’s power to control their work, a power they continually reproduce and increase through their work.

It would not be amiss to note that it is one and the same capitalist equation of money and satisfaction of needs, of property and benefit, that works out in such opposite senses for the two different sides. Since work is done for money — or not at all! — then it is not about providing everybody with real wealth, but about abstract wealth. Then it isn’t the case that workers dispose over the proceeds of their work, but rather the private power of property existing in money commands both work and workers; then people without financial assets are not making use of a convenient distribution mechanism when they bring home wages or get some equivalent compensation as the proceeds of their labor, but rather there is really nothing else produced but property. As property, produced wealth simply does not belong to those who produce it. Well, in what else could the economic achievements of money and property consist? The fact that the means of production are subject to an excluding, private power of disposal contributes nothing more to their productive capacity than to sever the material, productive use of these means, work, and those who carry it out from control over the production process along with its products; hence property exists to prevent the means of production and products from being available to those who use the former and need the latter. The fact that earned money provides a bit of access to the world of commodities is an advantage only under the precondition that none of the produced goods can be used in the first place, precisely because they have come into this world as somebody else’s property. By working, it’s possible to earn money — money that is moreover gone again in no time: what could such a deal possibly be good for if not for ensuring as a matter of principle that workers do not get what they produce, while those who pay them this money do? The whole process would be nothing but absurd precautions and grotesque complications if it were really all about producing useful goods and rationally distributing them to people. So this can hardly be the deeper, underlying meaning behind money, property and gainful employment. Their “meaning” must lie instead in what they really achieve: the equation of benefit with property, so that the two opposing, complementary solutions necessarily result.[6]

Hence those who maintain that the subsumption of work under property is beyond question, that any changes would even be futile if not counterproductive, supplement their “realism” with a good deal of idealism: they imagine that the so terribly antagonistic consequences of the rule of money can be ameliorated separately, without addressing their cause; preferably by the state, which surely is committed to the equal welfare of all and thus obligated to use its power to iron out excessive social antagonisms. Such a conception is not foreign to the bourgeois world, despite its unworldliness — after all, this is exactly the way a market economy is supposed to be seen, as a national economy with a sophisticated distribution strategy based on the principle of liberty that could easily be pictured without its shabby effects; and with the social system offering its services as the authority that actually undoes these effects. The only problem is that all this is simply not true; and since everyone, trusting in the holy duality of market economy & democracy, insists that at least it’s “supposed” to be so, then they admit that it is not so.

In reality, before devoting itself to any problematic consequences, the bourgeois state subordinates work to moneymaking and the power of property by giving property legal protection and the right to employ labor. And capital does what it can: it takes command of work, i.e., its productivity, as its source (section II, following); it uses work to increase its surplus relative to the means expended, i.e., its rate of profit (III); it makes work liable for the service and maintenance of a credit system that, on the one hand, is not the least bit interested in its preconditions in the profitable production it promotes on the other hand (IV); it makes use of work as a weapon in international competition, which brings state power into the arena as an interested party with its own demands on work for its own success; and it is currently using work as a stopgap against its self-created crises, again with state support (V).

Notes

[1] The doubt expressed as to whether a planned economy is really “feasible” never seriously refers to the means that would be required to carry it out, but rather dismisses the project on the pretext that one couldn’t imagine it being carried out. And how could one, seeing as how the social context required for setting up and carrying out a sensible plan, organized deliberations free of “economic constraints,” doesn’t even exist, and since the market economy with all its reified purposes and established procedures, including the human character masks that go with it, is tacitly assumed as the backdrop against which a planned economy would be introduced? One need not agree with the project of freely and sensibly organizing needs and their satisfaction; but then at least one should not pretend one would be all for it if only the communists didn’t always fail to come up with practicable “prescriptions” and “models” — that would really be the easiest part, once an awakened working class knew what it wanted in the first place.

A bitter irony of history might be mentioned here. The great historic leap to a socialist planned economy, which its organizers themselves later phased out as a failed attempt, put into practice exactly this mistake of taking for granted capitalist economic features, from hourly wages to credit, as “economic reality.” Instead of ferreting out the capitalist purpose in these features, they developed a model for managing an economy with them in a more labor-friendly way. State force does of course make a lot of things possible, even real capitalism… As if they themselves had never rid themselves of their doubts about whether a fundamentally different kind of economy would “actually work,” the governing socialists of the East Bloc proudly bestowed the revealing, honorary title of “real” on their sorry effort, while practicing a brand of socialism in which all the constraints of capitalism were wielded as “economic levers” for cleverly manipulating the national economic “apparatus” — with moderate success compared to the capitalist original, at least as far as the wealth at the disposal of the state is concerned.

[2] Admittedly, bourgeois society is also host to a fundamental criticism of the “commercialization of every aspect of life.” One variant of this criticism concerns the attitude of people who have to prove themselves in this moneymaking system but largely fail, and professes belief in maxims of life loftier than the truly binding requirements — requirements that such critics completely accept as “organizing principles” — of money-based materialism. This rejection of “mammon” aims to complement commerce with a moral stance in which the individual attests to his not being a “slave” to it — the vicissitudes of life in a market economy provide ample opportunities for proving the soundness of this honorable posture. Typically, this “critique of capitalism” is aimed not so much at the rich, who can easily afford to display such a noble-minded attitude, as at people who are supposed to transfigure their troubles into the virtue of doing without, instead of succumbing to “social envy.”

In its other variant, the condemnation of the “absolute rule of money” designates spheres that should be removed from “mere commerce” for the sake of their higher claims and offers. Critics making this plea concede that the market economy has long since turned even the loftier goods such as God or love, music or justice, poetry or the beauty of nature into saleable commodities, or else subjected them to the requirements of moneymaking. And why not! These goods from the realms of moral necessity and luxurious profundity are neither more nor less compatible with the principles of gainful employment (to be discussed below), and can just as well be measured in the money paid for them as any other product or service whose “commercial” purpose nobody takes offense at. And this is not only something that the peddlers of higher things know very well: their plea clearly intends that those who deal in deeper meaning should at least be able to live a worry-free life.

[3] Referring to this sort of freedom, economists in all their irrepressible cynicism have advanced the dogma that every economically active individual is fundamentally occupied with nothing other than optimizing his benefit or utility. From this, they have derived mathematical models of market transactions, all of which prove how well everybody fares, since ultimately even the smallest sum of money carries over into some utility preference. What’s worse than these circular mental constructs, however, is the habit that “market participants” themselves have of regarding the art of budgeting as freedom in action, even developing a perverse pride when once again managing, despite inadequate funds, to make ends meet with thrift and bargain hunting. Such heroes of private freedom can then only imagine a planned economy as the opposite, i.e., as spoon-fed poverty. This delusion is not merely the basis for theoretical models, but also for very real democratic power relations.

[4] Even basic necessities are not automatically produced if there’s a lack of purchasing power for them; they are even destroyed if this serves moneymaking. That is why the public power, which puts the market economy into operation by guaranteeing property, ends up having to intervene in heaps of cases to compensate for the effects of the economy’s operation. The fact that the whole show keeps on going at all, even without the public power directing it in any planned way, once inspired amazement and admiration among early apologists of this “system,” leading them to “infer” an “invisible hand” working ingeniously “behind the backs” of the actors programmed to make money and nothing else. The less pious truth is that every material, social connection in a market economy is the absolutely unplanned effect of the universal striving for the money of others — and that’s how it looks too: everything not suitable for making money is simply slashed.

[5] Bourgeois economics turns things upside down in its model-based derivations of market operations, postulating an intrinsic insatiability of human drives that capitalist production supplies with the optimum, maximum and as well-balanced as possible degree of satisfaction by constraining these drives in a rational way. It attributes to human beings a boundless, naturally endowed materialism that they just cannot fulfil given the variety of their historically acquired interests, in order to justify an economy of property as nothing but a struggle against “scarcity.” The truth is that this economy makes the exclusion from all needed goods the starting point for gainful activity, thus giving rise to a shortage that is never eliminated with the work it organizes.

[6] To be sure, the equation has yet other solutions. The market economy is acquainted with all sorts of “self-employed” persons, from farmers to doctors, who eke out a living with the property required for their occupation and their own gainful labor; in various combinations, they represent the antagonism between labor and property in their own person, thus not overly moderating this antagonism. Then there is the state, which with expropriated funds plays the role of employer without having its employees create property; with all its sovereignty over the classes of its society, it too respects the absolute rule of money over the work it organizes by paying its professional staff; in so doing it calculates the remuneration according to the criterion of private-sector wage payments all the more closely the “lower” the task. As a general rule, one shouldn’t make a mystery of the various functional subdivisions of a capitalist moneymaking society — especially since the leading public authorities have no trouble going at their citizens with their own explicit economic class gradations when collecting taxes or setting up social funds. And by the way, a methodological hint: the principles of the political economy of capitalism are not pigeonholes whose validity would be proved by their usefulness in sorting and filing mankind, nor would they be called into question by borderline cases.