I’m undergoing the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard, but to my brain. I’m preparing a lengthy review of JacobinMag founder Bhaskar Sunkara’s new book The Socialist Manifesto. This means I have to read it. I’m reading it so you don’t have to.
One of the things I will elaborate on is that the same facts are subject to completely opposite interpretations between the socialist and the capitalist. For instance, Sunkara writes (he’s an engaging writer, even if his cuteisms are annoying to me, a self-described sophisticate):
Capitalism isn’t the consumer products you use every day, even if those commodities (wet wipes, tobacco, hair wigs) are produced in capitalist workplaces. Nor is capitalism the exchange of goods and services through the market. There have been markets for thousands of years, but, as we will see, capitalism is a relatively new development. The market under capitalism is different because you don’t just choose to participate in it—you have to take part in it to survive. Your ancestors were peasants, but they weren’t any less greedy than you. They had their little plot of land, and they grew as much crop as possible on it. They ate some of it, and then they gave a chunk of the remainder to a local lord to avoid getting killed. Any leftover product they often took to town and sold at the market.
But you, pasta sauce proletarian, face a different scenario. You might’ve said that you’re into locally sourced, sustainable food on your Tinder profile, but you don’t own any land. All you have is your ability to work and various personal effects that I originally listed here in great detail but have since been removed by my editor.
By virtue of owning a place of work, a boss has something any would-be employee needs. Without land to sow, your labor power by itself isn’t going to produce any commodities. So you rent yourself to Mr. Bongiovi, mix your labor with the tools he owns and the efforts of the other people he’s hired, and in return receive a wage, which is really just a way to get the resources you need to survive.
What he is describing is mostly accurate. Before capitalism, people used to produce their own food and trade whatever they produced beyond what they wanted to consume. But while Sunkara explains that capitalism was a regression from this better scenario, capitalist theorists (especially in the Austrian School) explain this as the crowning achievement of social development. This is because one is no longer required to actually take on the burden’s of capital ownership and the risks associated with employing this resources unwisely. Rather, one gets to participate in the production of goods and services without contributing any capital at all! In other words, this fundamental and inherent task of an indirect exchange economy is outsourced to someone else entirely and you get fronted wages despite the uncertain nature of the future profitability of today’s production.
Sunkara says that you have to take part in it in order to survive. Well we certainly have to do something in order to survive. Man does not live in a reality where bread and wine float into one’s mouth. But rather than having to actually manage and care for the productive capacity of the land that Sunkara wishes the proletariate owned, all you need to do is come to the situation with “your ability to work and various personal effects.” In other words, Sunkara despairs that “all we have” under capitalism is abilities and skills, not capital goods. But this is a feature! We don’t actually have to bring capital goods to the table in order to participate and receive the means for sustenance and wealth acquisition. We bring nothing but ourselves and yet profit immensely in receiving the benefits of a modern standard of living.
Far from being a devastation, this seems to me the greatest achievement of modern life. Despite of course, governments around the world undermining its successes and true fruition.