Thoughts on Contradiction

August 25, 2009

Capitalism is, without doubt, a perplexing beast. As Karl Marx and almost any intelligent observer of its intricacies has pointed out, it is a form of production and social organization which is riddled with contradictions. For instance, while capitalists are dependent upon the ability of consumers to buy their products in order to restart the cycle of production, their everyday business practices act to limit the wealth of workers as tightly as possible. Left alone, the free market tends to implode as production outpaces demand. The workers, paid too little (to pump up profits) produce too much. The resultant crisis beggars both workers and bosses alike, though not in equal measure.

Then there is the ecological contradiction of capital. That is, while capitalist development chugs along, raising production levels and prising open markets, it systematically erodes the resource base upon which that very development is based. On a planetary level, this over-exploitation of the world’s resources presages an economic and ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions. Like the contradiction of workers and production mentioned above, which has been widely forgotten about in the neoliberal era (since about 1980), there is no solution in sight to the ecological contradiction of capital, at least not within the perspective of raw free market neoliberalism or the tender mercies of a renewed Keynesian state. The machinery of consumption, no matter how passionately Niall Ferguson and Paul Krugman contest its composition, continues to grind us towards oblivion.

A third contradiction, goes right to the heart of the nature of the individual under capitalism. This is less widely discussed, but no less fundamental to the human prospect. Capitalism in a doctrinal sense, urges that corporations and public bodies should prize efficiency, they must streamline their operations, cut off the dead wood, reduce drag, reap the rewards. If they don’t then others will outcompete and destroy them, making this pursuit of economic ergonomics a fundamental drive of the modern organizational man. Other forces that may impact upon the composition of an institution, such as broader public interest, religious morality, ecological concerns are excluded, by and large. There is no alternative to the dictatorship of efficiency, we are told, by an autistic establishment which admits no other arguments into the circuitry of its autocues and the blackberries of its spin doctors.

Yet while the institutional drive is towards paranoid efficiency, the success of a capitalist economy is utterly dependent upon the profligacy of the individuals from which it is built. Herein lies the contradiction. In our working lives we are invariably told that our behavior should be modulated by the need to ensure efficiency, productivity and to banish waste and, the subtext must be, to banish independent thought as a waste of precious time. Yet when we act as consumers, as individuals within society, we are implored to spend, to cut out ways of saving money and to behave in ways that are, in every sense, enormously wasteful. How many people grow small garden plots to supply their potatoes and tomatos? How many people use olive oil instead of butter to moisten their loaf? How many people make their sandwiches at home instead of relying on insipid paninis from the local cafe? How many shoes have you got?

Clearly we don’t act like economists. If we did, then vast portions of the economy, including my local sandwich bar, would begin to struggle as the social base for their existence discovered the virtues of thrift. In reality, we are moulded by a system which demands excessive expenditures from us all, and tightly maintained discipline at work, yet it does not have to be this way at all. There is no natural law which demands from us a certain form of behavior. What there is, is a system of economic and social relationships which has an internal logic, yet remains contradictory and, ultimately, self defeating. Self defeating, that is, in the sense of defeating both itself and your own individual sense of self.

In reality, all of these contradictions are interrelated. While we have been brought to a social and economic crisis by years of stagnant wages (but soaring profits), we are on the cusp of an ecological crisis, and we are not equipped with the personal skills to downsize our consumption patterns. If we were to do so en masse, a societal crisis would result, for which we are hardly prepared, but prepare we must.

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