The current conversation around labor is odd. Many (most?) labor advocates still talk about their fight in Marxist terms. Never mind the more theoretical aspects of Marxism, his views on history and progress, etc., and just look at labor. Labor, in this view, is the foundation for all value. Capitalism developed when labor was commodified, allowing the bourgeoisie, the capitalists, to exploit the labor of others to steal that value. (I know this is a gross oversimplification. There are plenty of places to get a more detailed and nuanced view. That’s not my point here, so please bear with me.) They did this through the control of the means of production. Since people first read Marx, there has been debate about the validity of this view. What I find odd is that with all the changes the world has seen in the last 200 years we are still using the same terms in the same way for the debate.
How elastic should the definitions of labor and value and capitalism and means of production be? When I listen to, and read, these debates, I find myself wondering if we even live in a capitalist society anymore. Capital used to be used to exploit labor to make commodities that were sold in markets to enrich the capitalists. That does still happen, but many of the ultra-wealthy no longer participate. They don’t worry about selling commodities in the market, they trade financial instruments with each other. Add to that the fact that they have discovered that they can make a fortune by allowing the workers to own shares of capital. All of these concepts have become muddy, to say the least. You can contort them to fit the modern world, but is that the best way to move forward?
I do not believe it is. By framing the debate with such old-fashioned notions, it is limiting our options for solutions. In the old way of looking at things, where labor is the source of all value, but capitalists exploit labor, people feel like they need to keep labor. Otherwise there would be no value for anyone. The trick is to let labor keep its value instead of being exploited. Ideas for doing this range from collective ownership of the means of production to minimum wage laws. Overtime, social-security, welfare, the weekend, and many other things have been used to work towards the goal.
We need to be bolder. Labor and value need a divorce. We’ve been operating under the assumption that work is good and it’s the exploitation we need to fix. In fact, work is bad. It has been a necessary evil for a good chunk of human history, at least since we decided to stop being a foraging species. We have moved past that. We’ve reached a point of abundance. The goal can no longer be to keep labor and end the exploitation. We need to abolish labor.