The fundamental economic issue

The big scandal of the last 100 years is that poverty and scarcity are unnecessary  - except to keep the social order in place.  Even as far back as Adam Smith, the dirty secret of economics was that the “ruling class” hates market competition and working people who do not accept their place. As the expansion of technology and world trade keeps threatening to make the rich work for a living, they react with fury. This is not a new phenomenon.

The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation — as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery — how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this “use-value” regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good; how they do not care a damn for the sugar and the fixed capital invested in the plantations but rather observe the planter’s impending bankruptcy with an ironic grin of malicious pleasure. - Karl Marx

The planter does not even consider the notion that perhaps planters need to either get out of the business or offer to pay what the market demands. Instead he wants the government to make potential workers accept what is offered. And this same view dominates “conservative” economics to this day. Workers must be motivated by scarcity or compulsion. The iron laws of economics that are beloved of conservative ideologists are imposed by wealthy incumbents who insist that their status is sacrosanct. Hayek’s endorsement of the Pinochet torture state and the Republican opposition to Obamacare have the same roots.

The Marx quote is from a book by Harry Cleaver who goes on:

In addition to the citation from the Times, Marx might have cited an earlier and even more vivid diatribe on the same subject which had been written by Thomas Carlyle (author of Past and Present and Sartor Resartus) in 1849. In his blatantly racist “Occational Discourse on the Nigger Question”, Carlyle lamented the decline of white plantations after the freeing of the slaves in the West Indies and places the blame squarely on the “niggers” who refused to work for their old masters.

“Our beautiful black darlings are at last happy [freed from slavery]; with little labour except to the teeth, which surely, in those excellent horse-jaws of theirs, will not fail… . Sitting yonder with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins [any tropical fruit], imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for every new work, and the pumpkins cheap as grass in those rich climates: while the sugar-crops rot round them uncut, because labour can not be hired, so cheap are the pumpkins … Where a black man, by working about half-an-hour a day (such is the calculation), can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work! … ”

And what does Carlyle conclude from this refusal of work? Namely that the ex-slaves be forced to work: “And first, with regard to the West Indies, it may be laid down as a principle … That no black man who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or to any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be; but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled, by the real proprietors of said land, to do competent work for his living. To do competent work, to labour honestly according to the ability given them; for that and for no other purpose was each one of us sent into this world… . if your Nigger will not be induced? In that case, it is full cetain, he must be compelled; should and must … Quashee, if he will not help in bringing out the spices, will get himself made a slave again (which state will be a little less ugly than his present one), and with beneficent whip, since other methods avail not, will be compelled to work.”

As you might imagine, this essay provoked considerable outrage and a number of replies, the most famous of which was by John Stuart Mill. Carlyle’s essay and Mill’s reply were published together in: E.R. August (ed) Thomas Carlyle, The Nigger Question and John Stuart Mill, The Negro Question, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971.

That was from Harry Cleaver’s book on Capital.  Here’s Keynes

“The war has disclosed the possibility of consumption to all and the vanity of abstinence to many. Thus the bluff is discovered; the laboring classes may be no longer willing to forego so largely, and the capitalist classes, no longer confident of the future, may seek to enjoy more fully their liberties of consumption so long as they last, and thus precipitate the hour of their confiscation…”

—John Maynard Keynes: The Economic Consequences of the Peace

via Brad Delong

The history of the post WWII west, has been fundamentally about the efforts of right wingers to preserve the scarcity that keeps the serfs in place. Racism has always been a key part in the marketing of this system.

See also: karl-marx-versus-the-immature-american-system

Edited Feb 10 2014