“For us, our parents bore (or were lost to) two world wars, countless “lesser” ones, innumerable major and minor crises and crashes. Our parents built, for us, nuclear bombs. They were hardly egoistic; they did what they were told. They built on sacrifice and self-renunciation, and all of this has just demanded more sacrifice, more renunciation.”- ‘bolo ‘bolo by P.M.
I used to teach college at a large public university in Southern Arizona (there’s only one, so go ahead and figure it out). I liked teaching and did it pretty well. I doubt my paymasters would have agreed, and had the shitheads of Project Veritas planted themselves in my classes they would have found themselves with a surplus of anarcho-communist content and method to get angry dickheads all wound up by.
If you want to teach well, the first thing you have to do is abolish grades. It makes people nervous, or hopeless, or grossly aspirational to be evaluated. There are no meritocracies in this world and doing away with grades is instructional in this regard. Work hard or don’t work at all. No one really cares. .
Department chairs hate this, so keep it secret. Get your class in on the deception. It helps even the playing field. Their capacity to blackmail you will keep you from getting shitty. In the classes I taught the only real requirements were to show up and talk. There are always people who bail entirely on courses without withdrawing which results in automatic machine generated F’s. It creates the illusion that you’re failing people.
I was once shamed by my advisor for failing to sufficiently punish students for a lack of ability that could be squarely blamed upon useless public schooling and the fact that drugs and sex are more interesting than classes. I resented her more for her lack of understanding than the admonishment. I didn’t want to create button pushers. I wanted to create saboteurs.
A second thing to know about teaching is that (leaving aside math or physics, and even here there are probably counterpoints to be made) is that emotions are vitally important for our understanding of the world. Joy, sorrow, pain, arrogance, apathy- these are all things to analyze and are more foundational to politics than knowledge.. There is no time wasted in discussing them. They need to be looked at as what they are: Material things built by human labor. We’re all ‘socially determined’ from the CEO to the wheelchair bound.
In the Marxian schema our internal lives are part of a commodity (our capacity to work) that comes to market as a use-value. This use-value is our capacity to think, to feel, to endure. They make us love just enough that we suffer through the punishing boredom of our economic lives, with a countervailing resentment to let those that surround us know they’re not good enough (but they could be if they tried harder). But like many commodities they escape control: The hog born to be bacon escapes into the woods. The gasoline intended to transport someone to work ends up in a bottle with a flaming rag stuffed in its mouth. And the disgruntled worker punches his boss in the face.
There is nothing upon which as much labor is expended as emotion. Industry produces dozens of drugs to correct minds that cannot sufficiently motivate bodies to the workplace. Alcohol flows down billions of throats to allow for a temporary evening armistice with suffering. There are academic disciplines in place to create the right kind of feelings and the right kind of desires. There are countless threats articulated to make us pliable. We are fed endless visual streams of muck to summon some sense of purpose and music pumps into us from a firehose of studio crap. We move through schooling, gussied up as though it’s something more than clear communication about shutting the fuck up. And then there’s fear, the most important of them all: Apocalypses great and small, cruelties both petty and monstrous, and the constantly delayed specter of our own end. We all hope it will be a painless affair. While death is guaranteed it takes countless forms. Be good and you might receive opiates sufficient to numb your pain and allow you to forget the terror. But only if you go to work. Otherwise it’s hypothermia or some other careless violence.
So that’s what we did in my classes. We talked about this. Yes, there were readings and papers and lectures but most of it was sitting in a circle and talking about feelings, wrapped in paper like fish. The students seemed to appreciate it. I don’t know to what extent. My reviews were good and I was proud of that but I never heard from any of them again.
I didn’t always have a choice regarding what classes I would instruct. I had a good relationship with the office staff and I like to think that I was given courses that I liked. Sometimes I would act as the instructor of record (in which case I could do whatever I wanted- nobody was checking) and sometimes I served as a teaching assistant. This was tolerable but only because most of the time I worked under a man I considered a friend. We had similar political commitments and he allowed me to do what I wanted in the ‘discussion sections’ which were a normal component of undergraduate classes in my department.
Generally we were paired on a course called “Geography of the Southwest”. There were some discussions of geomorphology and hydrology, which are staples of this kind of class, but it is impossible to discuss the borderlands without talking about immigration, smuggling and indigeneity. One of the highlights of the semester was a voluntary field trip to the border. Boys never signed up to go. I don’t know why.
Driving through the Southwest is like catching America with its dick out. All the most horrible things are more visible. Our legacy of murder, of labor strife, of war- these things can be hidden elsewhere, buried under concrete or left to the mercy of the forest. In the desert bones bleach. They’re reflective, throwing the sun back into space.
The desert is littered with military installations. They’re desert herpes. One of the largest Air Force bases in the United States abuts the city of Tucson. 15 miles North of the international boundary is Fort Huachuca (interestingly, this is where the Buffalo Soldiers were established as a regiment). On the Western edge of the state are U.S. Army proving grounds. This all makes some sense. The weather is nice most of the time. It’s a good place to train pilots and drone operators and you can isolate the particular types of pain experienced by soldiers.
Then there are the numerous sites of the slaughter of indigenous Americans. It is an unfortunate fact that confounds easy distinctions between heroes and villains, but perhaps it is instructive as well that the colonizers of the Americas capitalized on the pre-existing or emergent hostilities of indigenous people. The Apache and Comanche gave the Mexican and U.S. governments hell in the desert Southwest, preventing either of these monstrosities from gaining a foothold. The railroad ended their supremacy in the desert but it wasn’t a fast or easy process. Massacres were frequent and often waged upon women and children. Sometimes these acts were perpetrated by their historical enemies rather than their newly arrived ones.
And the desert is a weapon, one the United States has used to great effect. Long before the age of Trump more eloquent and refined perpetrators of horror established as an operating principle of border enforcement a policing strategy focused on urban centers. This did nothing to deter migration to the U.S. and pushed into the desert those who would dare to cross the international boundary. They die of heat and thirst by the thousands. Walk on the boundary and there are blankets, backpacks, shoes. Who knows if these people made it. Send them a prayer. They need it.
The desert is full of ghosts.
Out in the desert are grave markers for the forebears of our current nuclear arsenal. The Titan II missile program is the tyrannosaurus of nuclear warfare: Obsolete and gone from view but you don’t want to run into one. It is now a tourist stop where one can be taken on a tour of the facility, guided by the men who spent endless boring hours hanging out and waiting for nuclear armageddon. At the conclusion of the tour they give a canned speech that they obviously believe without any doubt: They saved the world. Were it not for these weapons fire would have rained down upon the U.S. The zero sum game of mutually assured destruction has a kind of incontrovertible circular logic.
The facility is an amazing feat of engineering. It was built not only to withstand a direct hit from an intercontinental ballistic missile but to be completely functional afterwards, lest the whole strategy fall apart. Everything within was built on massive shock absorbers drilled into the earth. The silo door was several tons of steel. Without any embarrassment the tour guide told us of an incident where a steamfitter had dropped a wrench into the silo. When metal contacted metal the vapors of the rocket fuel ignited. The force of the blast launched the silo door a mile into the sky. It landed three miles away.
Recently I wrote about Marx. Something about that feels dated. How is it that something written in the late 1800’s remains relevant? But it does. The centerpiece of Marxist thought is the labor theory of value. I’ve taught it a number of times to many students. It’s a fun exercise, to watch people grasp around the economic commonsense that has been imparted to them and have their hands slip off.
It goes like this: How is it that a million avocados and a Lexus are equivalent? The answer that you get is either 1) they both fulfill a need and 2) they cost the same amount of money. You need both answers because both answers are correct. A million avocados will yield a lot of guacamole. You and a whole lot of other people can eat guacamole until you’re sick. A Lexus will allow you to travel from one place to another and will likely elicit feelings of envy or admiration as well.
They are both useful items that satisfy a need. One is food and fuels your body, the other is transportation and fuels your ego. The seller of the avocados has a lot of avocados, way more than they can eat themself, and would really like to drive a fancy car. The seller of the Lexus can’t eat that many avocados but has an even newer and more sexy car. These two useful things accomplish very different purposes but can only encounter one another through an intermediary: Money.
Marx talks about this as a circuit: C (commodity) – M (money) – C (commodity). The circuit can also function as M-C-M in which money is used to purchase a commodity that is sold for money. It is an exchange of things that have a common element that allows them to encounter one another as equivalents.
The second question to pose is what could these things have in common- certainly they have a sale price and satisfy a need, but that doesn’t satisfy as an answer to the question. It usually takes some time before they arrive at the fact that these things all are products of human labor- in the case of the avocados there is a relatively small amount of labor in each individual item while the Lexus contains a great deal more, but given enough avocados there is enough labor that they are of equal value to a Lexus.
The next question: Where does profit originate in this schema? It’s inevitable that someone answers that to make a profit one must buy low and sell high. Certainly this does happen in society, and sometimes with disastrous results, because it creates an inflationary spiral of universal robbery where prices are adjusted upwards.
So you ask again, more pointedly: Is there a commodity that can produce more value than it costs? If an excess of value can’t originate in the market then perhaps it lies in the process of production. Eventually this question is answered- human labor can produce more value than it is purchased for. Marx refers to this as ‘surplus value’ in which the worker produces more value than the wages paid.
After introducing this concept, Marx elaborates: There are two general strategies for extracting surplus value. The first he refers to as ‘absolute surplus value’. This entails low wages posited against a longer period of work. The second of these is ‘relative surplus value’ in which spatial organization and machinery increase the productivity of work thereby allowing the capitalist to produce a greater quantity of things with the labor purchased.
There is an important point to make here. The worker brings what Marx calls ‘labor power’ to the market to sell. Labor power is not labor. It is the capacity to work being purchased rather than the work itself. It is up to the capitalist and his or her subordinates to utilize the labor and ensure that it is productive. And this is where class struggle enters the picture.
Most of us will have experienced this. In the small shop or kitchen the small business owner looks over your shoulder and hurls stupidities like ‘clean, don’t lean’ at you. Or maybe they simply browbeat you into a shorter break and an extra 10 minutes on the back-end of the day. Or perhaps you work at Geico, performing the necessary but baffling labor of selling a thing that one is legally obliged to buy. No doubt the call volume you produce is measured, the calls you are on are subject to surveillance, and your bathroom breaks timed. You’ve been trained for this your whole life. School exists to deaden the mind to constant monitoring. This is class struggle viewed from the perspective of capital.
On our side, as most of us will go through our lives without ever participating in formally organized labor, our rebellion against the extraction of surplus value takes the form of time stolen back. We take longer trips to the bathroom. If we can get away with it we steal. We read stupid shit on the internet rather than making that next phone call. Occasionally we go so far as to break something important so that we’re afforded a respite from the day. Although capital has developed a million ways to protect this production of surplus value there’s always a leaky valve somewhere in the machine.
And machines are my jumping off point. ‘Relative surplus value’ depends upon machines to expand a worker’s productivity. This creates two problems, one obvious and one less so.
The first is that introducing machinery into production throws class conflict into greater relief. Putting workers in contact with expensive investments (that they are basically chained to, becoming a machine unto themselves) presents the threat of sabotage and occupation. The term sabotage derives from the French term for workers in early industrial production who wore wooden shoes and waged labor disputes through a number of channels, one of those being the destruction of industrial equipment. Occupation is more obvious and becomes a serious threat to production utilizing expensive machinery. The entirety of a production process can be shut-down for an indefinite period of time by adequately prepared workers.
The second problem that arises in regard to machinery is less obvious and more theoretical. The analysis goes like this:
If human labor is the mechanism that creates value in society and the means by which the amount of value extracted involves machines, then while the machinery may create a greater magnitude of profit, the rate of profit dwindles. This is to say that if one person makes ten widgets that each require one dollar of widget juice to produce and the worker is paid nine dollars, each widget will have embodied within it a dollar of raw material and $0.90 of labor. It will sell at market for $1.90 and if the capitalist is lucky he will sell them all. The cost of production was $19.00 and the capitalist received $19.00 back. No profit is made.
The owner of the widget factory is pissed. He wants to make money, not transform widget juice into widgets. He decides that he’s going to try another strategy. He can’t make more widgets out of the same amount of widget juice and he can’t sell them for more than they’re worth so he decides to double the working time of the worker while paying the same wage. Then we have to double the amount of widget juice, which costs $20, pay the worker $9, and set the process in motion. 20 widgets emerge. They each contain a dollar’s worth of widget juice but now they contain $18 worth of labor that has been purchased for $9. Each widget arrives at market for the same price per widget. Each one has $1 worth of materials embodied within, as well as $1.80 of labor. The capitalist has expended $29 on materials and labor, has sold 20 widgets for $1.90, earning him $38. He has made a profit of $9, or the equivalent of the difference between the pay received and the time worked by the laborer. His return on investment is 31%.
This widget master is very motivated. There has been a revolution in widget production and widget mills are available. Instead of 20 widgets a day he can make 100. He has to pay a thousand dollars for the machine, so in ten days of operation it will have transferred all its value to the widgets at which point it breaks (yes, it’s a shitty machine). So he sets forth, very excited at the prospect of more money. He buys 100 portions of widget juice and hires his laborer for the same wage at the same working time. The machine hums to life and sets out on its predetermined course. It produces 100 widgets. Each widget contains a dollar of juice and a dollar of the cost of the machine. The $18 of labor (purchased for $9) is now distributed to 100 widgets instead of 20. Each widget costs $2.09 to produce but has a value of $2.18. He sells them all, as his widgets are no more or less expensive than anyone else’s. He recieves $9 of profit from selling widgets after spending $209 to produce them and selling them all for $218. Instead of a return on his investment of 31% it is 4%.
This presents a dire problem for capitalist production. There is an inherent drive towards the diminishment of living labor in the system. While the system in its entirety may create incredible magnitudes of profit the actual rate of profit has a general tendency to decline. The theoretical limit of this is the disappearance of value and the reduction of the rate of profit below the point at which capital will continue to circulate. That’s all very smart and I’m totally proud of myself for knowing how it works. But it’s not really the point I was trying to make.
In this schema, human labor power is the most important commodity on the market. Profit cannot arise from any other source (aside from theft, or the renewal of projects of primitive accumulation). Like any other commodity labor power has a price which is roughly equivalent to the costs of commodities and labor required to reproduce it. A dead worker generates no profit, whether their life is bound up in another machine or they’re starving, eating grass and praying for death.
As well, all labor has particular forms that require greater or lesser degrees of training and discipline. A nuclear scientist developing an atomic weapon requires a lot more labor to reproduce than say a gig economy worker who gives people rides. They have to be educated, disciplined, surveilled, and enjoy the finer things in life. Were they to become disgruntled or resentful or suicidal many millions of dollars of machinery could be damaged or an environmental catastrophe visited upon the earth. A gig worker on the other hand only needs a car, food, shelter (perhaps redundantly- they could sleep in the car) and their fear of destitution to keep them going.
This is one of the interesting points that autonomous Marxism has made for the past 50 odd years. The labor power that creates labor power is referred to as ‘reproductive labor’. Most of this occurs in the home by people who don’t receive a wage for their work, and the vast majority of this is performed by women. Children need to be reared and prepared for a lifetime of disappointment. The husband needs to be fed and fucked so he can return to his job the next day. The elderly need to be cared for on their way of the world- it’s part of the class deal that we mostly die slowly.
The argument here is that there is a great deal of labor expended on the reproduction of people’s ability to work and that it is largely unpaid and basically unending. This is a point in the overall production of value that receives no remuneration, is an essential point in the reproduction of labor power, and can facilitate investment from high rate of profit industries to inustries with low rates of profit and a great deal of machinery. June Cleaver works in a factory, it just so happens that her factory involves fucking Ward and making sure the Beav isn’t gay or a commie.
This creates a secret surplus, a deposition of value in the labor process that keeps the whole ship on course. Theoretically the world’s demand that women (who work outside the home as well) pour their time into labors of love that will inevitably mutilate the product they produce in foreign wars and unhappy marriages on behalf of all of capital. Otherwise the rate of profit would decline to the point of crisis.
Capital circulates. It is always reinvested. This is a natural outcome of the impulse towards profit that every bearer of capital carries in their heart- a hoard makes no money. Inevitably, surplus value realized as profit by industries with small amounts of fixed capital and high amounts of ‘living human labor’ is invested in industries with very high magnitudes of profit but with very low rates of return on investment. Thus we get both nuclear power and house-cleaners and no one wonders at the disconnect.
As referenced in an earlier post entitled “If Trauma Were Bitcoin We’d All be Fucking Rich” I wrote about what Marx refers to as “Primitive Accumulation” in which a number of processes of spastic violence were unleashed in order to transport people, land and money into a new economic system. To paraphrase Silvia Federici, not only was this an original accumulation of value, it was also an accumulation of 1) divisions in humanity by dint of race, gender, and geographic location and 2) trauma.
There are a number of great books on the first point: Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, written by previously referenced radical Sylvia Federici and The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital by Leopoldina Fortunati are my personal favorites.
The accumulation of trauma is likely more easily articulated in the present era. As much as violence and terror are psychic conditions necessary for the reproduction of our society, they are also physical acts of labor that accumulate in our bodies as a historical process. While medical academia doesn’t generally concern itself with the monstrosity of the global economy, a gentle scratching of the surface allows us to see how we ourselves are a historically constituted commodity, the only one that can preserve living labor accumulated hundreds of years ago and carry it forth into the present.
This is a biological process. The medical literature (endlessly concerned with the reproduction of labor power) presents us with mechanisms by which this occurs. The study of historical trauma/collective trauma/intergenerational trauma provides an argument that a century and a half of academic bickering has failed to provide: There are biological mechanisms by which it is possible to transmit historical violence into the present.
There are three general mechanisms through which this can occur: Epigenetically, in which trait expression is suppressed or emergent depending on environmental and social factors; in-utero, in which the stress and pain of a mother influences neuroanatomy of a nascent human being; and psychologically, in which the fucked up behaviors and coping mechanisms of the adults by whom they are surrounded fucks up the kids who wonder why dad shoots up heroin in the shower or mom beats them.
These are all debated, which is what academics do, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining the general tendency towards despair occurring globally. It also explains how a society full of people who cannot afford to eat or pay for subway fare are dubiously protected by nuclear missiles. At the economic level the two are interdependent. Cashiers, McDonald’s employees, prostitutes and street-level providers of illicit drugs produce enormous magnitudes of surplus value that provide the capital that circulates into highly capitalized industries that produce depleted uranium ammunition and nuclear submarines. Our marvels of warfare are economically impossible without the contribution of the great many of us working for pennies and falling in and out of destitution.
The other thing this accumulation of damage provides is a specific type of labor power- people willing and able to inflict violence on others. Some do it for a wage and some are so generous as to do this socially useful work for free. Some no doubt think that they are doing something noble while others are more cynical and probably enjoy their labor all the more.
Our sadness and our rage are both socially determined and marketized. Just as nuclear power will haunt any utopia that manages to emerge from the modern apocalypse as its creators grapple with a deadly substance that can kill for thousands of years, so will capitalism’s legacy of violence live on in our bodies for generations.
I taught these things for six years. It was my attempt to throw a spanner in the works. I have no idea if it made a bit of difference and I guess I don’t care. If nothing else I took my labor back, out of sight of my gross liberal bosses and enjoyed myself when I should have been imparting convenient myths to a generation living in a world that likes to think itself to have been liberated from history.