On the “Standard of Living Like Never Before”
of the Modern Proletariat
[Translated from P. Decker and K. Hecker: Das Proletariat. Munich: 2002; p. 152-163]
1. On “prosperity for all”
An abundance of consumer goods is available to the modern worker that was non-existent in the days of the “classic” industrial proletariat, least of all for the working masses who trooped daily into grey factories. And not only by comparison between centuries: many things that would have been too expensive for the average wage earner decades or years ago is an ordinary consumer item today: the television in the house, the PC, the cell phone for the kids, the car for the lower class … And this is universally considered an admirable achievement – no, not of the people who produce the stuff so cheaply, but of the free market incarnate. But seriously: should modern employees keep up with the “objective necessity” of “mobility” on foot? Should Volkswagen bosses drive their Rabbits and Polos themselves? And should cars remain unaffordable to workers, even when in terms of numbers each worker in the auto industry produces one per week? The fact is: wage laborers also have a share of the “modern life” whose material amenities they produce; they are confronted not only in their workplaces with the latest achievements in technology and other advances, they also privately consume ever newer and more insanely innovative products. However, in evaluating this progress, one should consider the following.
First of all, the enlarging and perpetually changing composition of the “market basket of consumer goods” which, according to the estimates of government statistics offices, the average working class household lives on, has nothing to do with abundance, let alone with an increase in freedom and enjoyment of life. Even those fans of a modest “prosperity for all” who consider the standard of living of their wage-earning contemporaries mostly rather dispensable could hardly specify how the requirements of a viable globally profitable workplace, designed and streamlined for extreme speed and flexibility in production, be it in a digitalized open-plan office or an online home PC, would be properly and professionally met without the appropriate devices and accomodations that are part of private life. Constant availability for any task demanded right now, on-call at any moment at full capacity, up for the monotony of habitually dealing with electronic devices, unrestricted readiness …: such basic requirements for an up-to-date labor force in a competitive capital location would not be so profuse, unrelenting and constant if the wage laborers of the 21st century still huddled in the rural or tenement squalor of first generation industrial workers or had to cope with the survival plights of third world slum dwellers. What a capitalistically useful work force does and affords outside their working life must – by the way, as always – keep pace with the continuously advancing requirements of their employers and the equally further refined demands that the state power makes of its self-reliant citizens. A person without a furnished residence has no chance from the get-go; he must be accessible and mobile at any time; he certainly can’t get by without a more or less well-kept household with “healthy food” in the refrigerator, media for “relaxation” and mechanized sports activities for restoring physical and psychic conditions sapped by the job; etc. Because even without a family, more so with family dependents, he accrues a lot of essential basic equipment – and in the freedom to access the world of commodities completely according to his personal needs and preferences, the wage earning individual discovers a whole bunch of social necessities which he must first work like a slave for. What he then collects in possessions testifies more to the drastic functionalization of his private life to the objective constraints of profitable wage labor than to freedom and adventure.
The second objectionable point in terms of the standard of living is already touched on with the keyword “profitable,” namely the reason why something that becomes part of the necessary consumption of an “up to date” workforce really becomes affordable to an average wage earner. It is surely not a free gift from the capitalistic commodity producers and suppliers to their customers or some other philanthropic feature of the free market economy, but the effect of a ruthless competition over the profits that can be realized on the market. In the long run, the competing companies carry out this fight on the field of production costs, and the most important weapon that can be deployed in it is lowering unit wage costs. Reducing labor in price, but above all increasing its efficiency and saving relatively or even absolutely on paid labor is the company’s means to conquer larger shares of the market and more profit with relatively or even absolutely lower commodity prices. Looked at the other way around, what makes a product cheaper so that it also ultimately becomes affordable to less well-to-do customers is the successful minimization of operating labor costs in relation to labor output, the mass of saleable products belonging to the company; thus higher yields from the capitalistic use of the “labor factor.” It is exploitation that makes progress when the consumer items of the rich gradually become mass-produced commodities within reach of the purchasing power of the average wage earner. The fact that a certain amount of previously “unaffordable” consumer goods comprise his normal material stuff testifies more to an enormous shift in the average wage-output ratio than to a growing comfort in the average worker’s existence.
Thirdly, it is therefore quite clear what it is about when capitalists use successfully squeezed production costs for a line of commodities in order to tap new groups of customers which include the wage earners, thus initiating a competition against other manufacturers for the money of the less affluent masses – it is certainly not a competition to supply them; that’s why there can be no talk of an oversupply. A company wants to sell, whatever and to whomever; it has work done in order to seize with the sale of the commodity a maximum in social purchasing power for the realization of the profit that the workers have created in the product. Social wealth is not generalized, nor is participation in it conceded, but, if anything, the opposite: even the paltriest wage sum is made use of in order to concentrate ever more social wealth in its sole universally valid mode of existence, in money form, in the hands of the company’s owners. Wages, with which the entrepreneurial class collectively buys profitable work, may perform a second service for part of this class, i.e. in exchange for the necessary and sufficiently reduced in price mass-produced goods, money “flows back” to their till and thus helps complete the purpose for which it is generally spent: to ever further increase the monopolized ownership and command power of property over labor.
The selling of cars, air travel, built-in cabinets, etc., to everyone, even to simple wage earners, is about “absorbing” purchasing power in order to complete the capital turnover in specific industries, and it is most definitely not about fulfilling some kind of social mission of supplying people. This reason points out, vice versa, that, fourthly, the affordability of some “high end” consumer goods for the average wage earner certainly doesn’t mean that an average wage earner doesn’t have problems being able to pay for them. Wages are no more assessed according to the amount and price of the commodities that they must usually pay for than the prices of mass consumption goods are calculated by capitalistic retail businesses according to the sum that an employee earns on average and still has on hand after deducting all his other payment obligations. Wages are hopelessly overstrained. For that very reason, a bitter competition rages over “mass purchasing power.” The sale of each item is not only at the expense of competing sellers of the same commodity, but the sales prospects of all other items of mass consumption. And the consumer, in his freedom of choice, is in non-stop demand: in view of the enormous variety of goods available to him in principle, he must ration his earned money “rationally,” make “wise choices” and find a compromise between necessary expenditures and unavoidable sacrifices.
Anyway, he finds a lot of support in today’s developed market economy for coping with this continuous problem – this is the fifth and last point, which should not be completely forgetten when the accomplishment of universal mass prosperity is admired: all the consumer goods that make modern life so unbeatably progressive are really only affordable because resourceful producers and sellers have made the nice stuff in special cheaply producible variants. However, the problem of clever budgeting and the need to sacrifice does not thereby disappear; rather, still another trouble is added to the banal financial one: the cheap stuff is not good for much, its use often does not last very long, so it is not at all worth its cheap price. The practical proof leads the better off customers who have enough money to stick to products of real value, to drive safe cars and look down disdainfully on the cheap tourism of poor people which at the same time testifies to their excessive prosperity. Since that does not cause problems for the bourgeois mind, it takes that unmistakable cheapness of the proletarian standard of living as evidence that the standard that is “lived” there is simply too high: too high for that kind of people, which here means that they can still afford and enjoy luxuries.
The living standard of the wage dependent majority, which can’t be ignored, keeps up with the times. However, its continual modernization includes – of course, completely unintentionally – the side effect that the so splendidly and very suspiciously “over-supplied” employee class is comprehensively and perfectly functionalized for the interests of the employer class: increases in labor productivity, which puts more marketable commodities in the hands of the capitalist owner with a lower labor “cost factor,” thus expand completely in the service of the company’s profit; that private life is equipped with consumer goods just enables their proud owners to be as flexible, mobile, ready for duty and service-oriented as a modern employer must be able to require of his workforce; the mass purchasing power spent on it allows the social wealth to reliably flow back to where it belongs in capitalism, namely as money in the accounts of the business world; the masses who so usefully spend their purchasing power are left with a not uncomplicated allocation problem – which certainly nobody may call poverty. Because quite the contrary, all this is charged to the modern employee as his post-proletarian prosperity. That is, on the one hand, a mockery. But it is also revealing: it always requires a ridiculous comparison with “worse times” – or with regions where starvation is the norm – in order to arrive at the saying: “Today – for the German, British, Polish…? – the workers are so well off!”* At third hand, however, the denial includes the honest disclosure: more is not in the wealth of poor people from wage labor.
2. On consumer needs
Of course, all this can be disregarded and one can stick to the abstract, hardly deniable fact that simply – regardless of the functionalization of wages for the turnover and accumulation of capital – a satisfaction of needs does take place. This can even produce an argument which the fans of mass purchasing power consider sweeping and unbeatable: “People want it this way!” It does not even take much intellectual skill to turn the matter completely upside down and derive the whole capitalist array of commodities from the needs and free discretionary decisions of their buyers.
But maybe it is just that “people” are busy their whole lives putting out of mind any need – for a really “stress-” and worry-free life, for example – that can’t be realized “anyway,” because it simply does not fit the functional “vested rights” of a wage laborer. In any case, the needs that “the market” serves so cheaply that even wage earners can afford them, have been worked on so intensely already by the market economy, to the point that that is exactly what the “subjective factor” feels and nothing else. Because it is not at all the style of the market economy to simply identify needs and have the things produced and offered for sale – that would almost be a supply economy, if still not a planned one, and in any case, first of all, much too primitive for capitalist entrepreneurs and, secondly, a much too insecure basis for calculating the risks to which they expose their precious property when they “let it work.” Anyone who wants to do business with capitalistically produced commodities goes on the offense. He deals with the use value that the product has for him as a capitalist producer and seller, i.e.: to be a transporter of sales. That’s why the focus is on needs that the public has already taken to, out of necessity or voluntarily, and realized in their buying behavior; their ability to pay is appraised; and according to these premises, use values are designed which have the ability to attract a willingness to pay. The offer spells out and defines to people the needs they become accustomed to in consumption. So in its interest in using every income and wage very specifically as purchasing power and leaving nothing in competition to chance, the capitalistic business world follows a self-imposed educational goal: it instructs the masses in the proper use of the freedom that is actualized in consumption. It thereby shapes the image of itself that the modern world has and projects.
Stimulating demand with an appealing offer is taken as the least of problems and is no special feat. Because what a person with his few types of idiosyncratic instincts feels in needs, he has always picked up from the social stock of useful goods; the object of desire teaches the normal consumer what he needs and what maybe not. However, this straightforward relation becomes a little ambiguous in the market economy. Because here social inventiveness, which is wasted on always newer products and the corresponding cultural needs, is channelled for a purpose that really has nothing to do with economics in the sense of a relation established as rationally as possible between socially expended labor and a decent existence for all. Instead, the producers mobilize all the social powers of invention just for the construction of offers with which they can make money from any given living condition, no matter how absurd or brutal it is. All the harm and distress that the system of wage labor entails, any call of nature that the customs of competition drive forward is right for them when purchasing power is to be mobilized for it – the well-known range of offers then extends from the private vehicle, without which the modern “objective necessity” of “mobility” can scarcely be dealt with, across the wide range of items for medical and other personal care, without which the rest of daily life is not survivable, up to the industrially produced “mental diversions,” without which the constantly strained will scarcely manages to adapt. Following the example of the more expensive amusements that are offered to the rich in their arduous search for an unmistakable “identity,” the rest are also offered pleasures in inexpensive variants which promise compensation as well as savings, but which really compensate nothing at all and still always cost too much. This wonderful range of offers intended for the masses as customers aims at a character of needs which consists of felt needs, notional pleasures, and reflection on one’s own limited budget, and most certainly isn’t either: neither a need really coming from nature nor an interest rationally reflected on.
However, the creation of such complex needs is left up to neither nature nor to reason. The businesspeople who want to be of service here are in fact not concerned that humanity has until now not noticed the indispensability of a thing that is has in general a primal need for, but that it discovers it in the specific manifestation offered by them and of all things honors their junk with willingness to pay. This definitely overstrains human nature in its needs, but the capitalist entrepreneur is only properly challenged. He sees the need to familiarize people with his interest in their money as their own need, and he also knows the right tool for this: his money. He buys a special sort of inventiveness which takes care of his special need for successful sales and serves him with the appropriate product: advertising. This is a matter of a propaganda platform that connects the commodity with an undeniable need for it, or better yet: sets it in a scene of totally idealized pleasure, so that the addressee immediately feels the corresponding need. Its ideal ultimate goal is reached when sufficiently many customers feel themselves a fan club of the promoted commodity. This actually works; even children often base friendships on their backpack brandnames; later on, men bond over their favorite motorcycle trademarks. Certainly, this much insanity requires constant fostering. In particular, a compnay with successful sales must bear in mind a “moral deterioration” of its products: the obsolence of previously extolled features, the triumph of an innovation or the creation of a new style add necessary moments of continuity in change in order to secure the “brand loyalty” of its groupies. Other companies, by contrast, make an undisguised appeal to the lack of money of their customers, who are “not so stupid” as to pay one extra cent for the useless luxury of a brand name. And so on. All market-savvy salesmen take on the effort and costs of resolving in their favor the opposition between the economic purpose they pursue with their line of products and the restricted purchasing power they want to occupy through the brainwashed cultivation of a suitable socially-created character of needs.
In this way, the class of wage laborers – and the entire rest of the society as well – is trained by the business world in their assignment to be in their private lives, and indeed even in the highly personal freedom of their material lifestyle, even in the commodity basket they assemble according to their very own taste, a functional free market quantity and otherwise nothing at all; that is, to function as accessible purchasing power.
3. On saving and going into debt
This obviously works so well that it can’t stop there. Wage recipients and capitalistic service providers deal with each other on still a second level: in the mass business of the banks and credit card companies. Because that is finance capital’s system-compliant answer to the fact that life is always too expensive for modern workers in the free-market economy, even with all its bargains and price-cut offers, so the business done with them constantly bumps into its narrow limits: the loan business helps with financial matters, and that is anything but beneath it.
It grants even the poorest customer the power to put money aside and “let it work,” because it brings in interest like a properly advanced capitalistic asset. Without discriminatory prejudice, it provides any bankbook owner an idea of what property in the true sense is and achieves. However, only to the extent that the frugal wage earner does without; and because a wage never makes a person rich, a saved-up fraction of a wage is even less so real property in the sense that it is good for a means of living, namely for quasi-automatically yielding a livelihood. In the end, it never becomes a bigger gain or even a cash reserve for emergencies – hence it is never more than postponed consumption: doing without in order to someday no longer have to pass up something special or ease through a tight spot. A bit of financial freedom is bought by previous restriction, and it never exceeds this amount; the average saver can be quite happy if the accumulated interest at least makes up for the inflation that has occurred in the meantime. In any case, the frugal employee never comes out above the highly valued moral art of making a virtue out of a necessity. For the bank, however, the collected nest egg functions as its own capital: it enhances its power to create credit and make money from it.
Vice versa, the bank grants any wage laborer who really needs and wants to buy something he can’t pay for – assuming he has a steady income – the power to take out a loan and live substantially above his means; almost like a proper capitalist who invests borrowed money and even “makes” a lot more money with it than he could solely with his own assets, and indeed – if he doesn’t lose and the market cooperates – so much more that the interest and principal are yielded from the growth of profit. Therein, however, lies the essential difference: for people from the class of wage laborers, “consumer credit” – not coincidentally so-called – contributes nothing at all to a wage income, forcing the opposite, payment of interest to offset the sum they already didn’t have enough of for the happily concluded purchase. In this case, the interest rate is always assessed so that a compensation or overcompensation of this burden by a nominal pay increase is definitely not counted on. So the financial freedom that a modern wage laborer can provide by way of a loan quite directly forces the sacrifice of consumption, which on balance turns out to be higher than with the reverse way of saving and possibly lasts a lot longer than the use value which one at least has immediately in hand. Incidentally, a certain risk of being left sitting on unpayable debt – e.g., in the event of wage cuts, even more with layoffs – is included in the small freedom of credit for all. The financial institutions, for their part, take the risk of not being able to completely collect the interest on the borrowed money, also without real “security” a rather unscrupulous one: on the whole, they do not do too badly making money on their less affluent customers.
So the credit industry serves in a comprehensive way the enormous need to cope with the always much too narrow barriers of the wage for an average existence in the market economy without making its proletarian customers even a tiny bit richer – anyone out to get rich can try his luck at the lottery; because in capitalism there is a cheap version of gambling that is affordable to everyone. With its debts and its savings efforts, the wage earning public contributes to the accumulation of capital somewhere else; and therein lies the real purpose and reason for their banks’ accommodating services. Of all things, the limitedness of proletarian purchasing power serves the limitlessness of the credit business – a final small irony in the history of the net wage and the art of the modern employee who thereby finances an up-to-date standard of living.
The market economy does not leave the wage earner with his proud material freedom of choice standing disoriented in the rain. With its cheap products, whose charms the workers – plagued by all kinds of modern life necessities – can hardly resist, including attractive offers for financing necessities, it offers a broad range of basic items and luxuries that fit their wallets; and it will do anything to cultivate a private nature of needs that fits the items put on offer. So it customizes its wage-dependent rank and file into a bunch of “free-spending citizens” who maturely and self-consciously give out their money where it can function again as capital. And as a mockery some political managers of the general standard of living the perfected functionalization of people for the circuit of capital still the lie in hindsight, of all things, consumers are the true masters of the market economy, have control over the whole commodity production with their purchasing decisions, and in this respect are also to blame for nuclear power and mad cow disease. So the modern employee gets his free-market commodity basket, from which overflows car, house, beef and savings account, all wrapped up in the myth that he has chosen all this by himself with the irresistible power of his take home pay, completely freely and independently – and with it disposes over his first and foremost vested right: a free democratic standard of living.
* Anyone who measures the modes of appearance of modern wage labor in pauperism will inevitably not be able to discover poverty; because this is the reason he makes his comparison. The purpose of the exercise consists solely in the temerity of depicting the supplying of workers with necessities as the good deed of the free-market economy and its democratic state, and explaining all demands that go beyond these necessities to be presumptuous. The worker’s share in the social wealth is measured by this and not by the needs that adjust themselves as necessary requirements each time the level of production increases; rather, the mere reproduction of the workforce appears in this biased comparative standpoint as prosperity, and thus a reason for warmly praising capitalism. When this viewpoint is brought up by the worker himself as a judgment about his position – “I could be worse off,” “it goes (relatively) well for me” – he is also not driven to an objective judgment, but usually makes a comparison with his nearby surroundings: the co-worker who is paid worse, the unskilled man at the bad machine and similar negative models, leading to a positive conclusion which is nevertheless recognizable as an expression of his discontent – why else would anyone relativize their own needs in the poverty of others?