Capitalism 101

Capitalism 101

William B. Turner

This is not a secret. The information is readily available if you go look for it.

It is astonishing how many people who seem to consider themselves good leftists and activists and support working class people and oppose the growth in wealth and income inequality yet seem woefully ill informed about the history of capitalism, especially one of its key features, deskilling.

So reports that certain stores plan to eliminate human check out clerks entirely, switching to self checkout as the only option, produces howls of outrage. People fulminate about “illegal” aliens as “stealing jobs” and fail to notice that they lost their job to a robot.

Business owners want to make money. That is their primary purpose. We can wish that they would temper their zeal to profit in favor of treating other people humanely, but profit was the primary motive for slavery, and around the time we finally prohibited slavery we also saw a dramatic increase in the number and size of corporations, which combine profit motive with the anonymity of large organizations to produce conduct that is usually less overtly violent than the whippings slave owners inflicted on their slaves, but in some ways almost as harmful to the workers.

Workers are always a problem to business owners. They cost money, they can be unreliable, and they have a bad habit of trying to organize themselves the same way the owners do in order to demand higher wages and improved working conditions as a group, which makes their demands much more effective.

The standard capitalist response since forever has been deskilling, which means to find ways to remove as much of the skill as possible from any task or work process in order to make it possible for a wider range of people to perform the task. Often deskilling involves substituting machinery for humans. Machines can be expensive, but once you own one, you don’t have to keep paying it wages and it never shows up late for work or calls in sick and it won’t try to organize with its fellow machines.

That is, ordering kiosks at McDonald’s and self checkout stations at the grocery store and robots at the Carrier plant are just more of the same.

This is a battle that has been going on for more than two hundred years. From 1811 to 1813 a group called the  Luddites protested against the deskilling of their profession of spinning yarn and weaving cloth by smashing the type of frame for weaving they saw as the source of their misery. Poor harvests and war also caused other economic hardship, such that some Luddite protests corresponded with food riots.

In what would become the standard response, Parliament passed a statute explicitly prohibiting the crime of  smashing weaving frames and soldiers intervened to restore order. Variations on this theme would become common in England and the United States until the New Deal saw U.S. labor unions achieve enough power, in part through the famous sit down strikes in 1936 against General Motors, which established the United Auto Workers as a major labor union.

We have largely forgotten about the violence of the roughly one hundred years before, in which various pitched battles would break out between workers and police, soldiers, or private security guards working for the owners. Many people attribute the increase in wealth and income inequality to the decline in the power of unions since the 1970s.

Information about this history is abundant and readily available on the world wide web and at your local library. If you want to be an effective activist, knowing something about this history is useful, even essential. Get reading.