Renewable Matter # 23-24 / September-October

Marx Reloaded

by Emanuele Bompan

The linear capitalist economy, founded on the paradigm of “extract, produce, consume, dispose,” has been working incessantly, even on a social level, towards treating the labour force with the same commodifying logic. In this way, the worker becomes a commodity; to be used as long as it is productive, and then disposed of at the end of its (productive) life; once it has generated a satisfactory amount of surplus value. Hyper-exploited and underpaid, workers have generated a surplus value that has allowed for a small group of individuals to accumulate enormous amounts of wealth. The world’s 42 richest multi-billionaires possess as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people who work and toil every day, or are excluded from employment and relegated to lives of mere survival.

For over a century, social activists and trade-unions have battled for new rights, including those of women, and have fought for changes such as the universalisation of paid holidays and minimum wage. These victories have helped to counter the socially destructive force of an economic model that has drained our planet of all its resources, taking away our rights to a healthy existence and to the enjoyment of common goods by contaminating soil, air and water. Regardless of all of this, nowhere near enough is being done to improve the state of affairs. The situation continues to deteriorate in the industrialised world, whereas in newly industrialised countries little to no progress is being made. The new generations in rich countries are often underpaid, with poor labour protection, long working hours and no pension plans; all for the benefit of the small cadre of employers who, more often than not, belong to the previous generation.

Trade unions are losing their power to defend workers even in the industrial and agricultural sectors, whereas in the developing world they fail to flourish, leaving workers at the complete mercy of management (the Master). Entire sectors such as publishing, architecture, law and design all underpay their junior collaborators. In what is considered “wealthy” Europe they are being paid €3 for an article, 12 hours a day for €350 a month, consultancy for €6.50/h. “Wealthy” for some. Even those professions that used to be seen as quintessentially bourgeois have not been spared from the total deregulation of the job market. And, it is not just global corporations that are to blame: exploiters can also be found among small and family-businesses. In small and medium sized business enterprises in the developing world worker protections are non-existent. The likelihood that a woman or mother will lose their job in China and Brazil is dangerously high. Automation and digitisation will erode the availability of new jobs, while the complexity of the global economic situation might never be able to guarantee the necessary social welfare for a new circular economy. This same circular economy, as defined by European industrialists, does not have the right foundations to be a remedy to the question of employment. Thousands of new jobs will be created; new professions will emerge. But, what kind of quality of life will these jobs bring with them? Will this new economic vision regenerate the world of labour through a new interpretation of the European Community and the economy in general? Can the environment and environmentalism contribute to a renaissance in social justice which has disappeared wretchedly; destroyed by false emergencies and an ever less humane social consumerism?

Work should be as Marx described it: “a manifestation of liberty,” “objectification/realisation of the subject,” “true liberty.” In all the historical forms that have followed, work has in various cases become “repellent,” creating social outcasts (as well as material waste) and slowed belief in a better future, in a jubilee of peoples. The emergence of dictators, new-right movements and populism all over the world is also a consequence of economic imbalance and uncertainty, as well as the erosion of workers’ rights.

If we really want to consider a circular economy, we mustn’t kid ourselves. No business, region or nation will ever be circular if it doesn’t value its workers. 

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