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OP-ED: An equitable world for all workers

  • Published at 12:41 am May 1st, 2021
RMG workers

Can we start building a post-capitalist society?

Every year, on International Workers’ Day, the world pledges an equitable future for the workers -- a future where income of the workers will be increased, and working conditions will be improved. In such a future, workers are imagined having access to the barrage of consumer goods that the capitalist firms around the world produce and distribute. 

As such a vision of “future” is spread and in today’s world, we are always in a rush for securing our future. Every agenda of development is future-oriented. Additionally, every vision of the future is growth-oriented. We all want to grow our income and secure a future with the rising income and resources. This tendency is evident from the individual to the global level. Ironically, this growth mindset is the backbone of capitalism -- the biggest fraud of the contemporary world. 

The envisioned future, with development and growth, is never achieved, and the efforts always result in depriving most of the population enriching only the few -- the capitalists. With the growth-oriented agendas, our society has become more unequal than ever before. Root causes of the impending inequality and sufferings are the ways we have structured our capitalistic society.

Capitalism as a system is based on private ownership of property, free market, and minimal government. As such, everyone is on his own; in a market, transactions take place without much external regulations following the logic of supply and demand. In this process, three fundamental features are noticeable. First, people primarily produce not to consume but to sell at market. Secondly, motive of production is profit-making and hence, production does not directly meet our needs, evading market transactions. Thirdly, human labour becomes a commodity.

For labour to become a commodity, one precondition is a must. A segment of the population must not have access to means of production, who then are forced to sell labour to the owners of the means of production in exchange of money. In selling labour, a worker loses the control of how the labour will be used as well as the end product. The capitalist, being the owner of raw materials and tools, and by the virtue of paying for the labour, gets the end product, which is then sold in the market for more than the initial investments.

In a capitalist society, most of the exchange or distribution of products occur through markets -- everyone trades goods, contracts, and services to generate profit. However, profit could only be made through reducing the share of the labourer. While everything stays constant, labour generates surplus value and profit. Therefore, rate of profit can only be increased if workers are deprived. 

This is either done by increasing the working hour at factories/workplaces or through improving the technology that increases the production rate, and hence reduce workers’ share as she/he sold labour for a fixed amount. 

Because of this unfair distribution of profit, the disparity among capitalists and the working class gets bigger. According to recent estimates, eight people own as much wealth as 50% of the total global population. This is clear from the fact that during the Covid-19 pandemic, billionaires across the world have amassed unprecedented amounts of wealth and the working class are facing uncertainty, income reduction, joblessness, and misery. According to recent estimates by Oxfam, while 100 million people are on the verge of being in extreme poverty, the collective wealth of world’s billionaires rose by $3.9 trillion between March and December 2020. 

In capitalistic reasoning, the illusion of progress diverts our attention to aggregating indicators such as the GDP and its growth, but reduction of inequality does not coincide. Elitist view of fair redistribution through a trickle-down process is never achieved. In the book Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty argued, in a free market capitalistic economy, inequality rises faster than growth because the rich have become reliant more on asset wealth income than salaries; therefore, old forms of redistribution such as income and/or corporation tax do not ensure fair redistribution.

If we want to escape this form of impending inequality, what measures could we apply? We must implement Universal Basic Income (UBI) and progressive tax. One may argue, the provision of something like the UBI will make people lazy; contrarily, I think, once the basic income is guaranteed, people will be open to try new livelihood options and become entrepreneurs. This will work better than the trickle-down approach towards development that guides public investments only into the formal sectors and benefits the capitalists. 

To fund the UBI, we can rely on a progressive income tax and taxes on inherited wealth. As such, Thomas Piketty theoretically proved, it is possible to set up an egalitarian economy if we can set both income tax and inheritance tax around 60% to 70% for the rich. We can try to tax capitalism out of existence. To apply this radical approach, we will need efforts at the global scale.

This is not to say that agendas to ensure quality of education, health care, basic necessities, etc do not matter. However, ironically, the conventional approaches only produce healthy and capable workers who are then used as labour in the capitalist system as agents for profit-making.  

To establish a fairer world, we must demand and allow fair distribution of resources as at the heart of increasing intensity of inequality is the issue of unequal distribution. As workers, we earn continuously a lesser share of the output, and consequently, we are forced to work more to live a desired life promoted by our cultural ideals. However, the inability to achieve such goals engender stress and hopelessness. 

Therefore, we must free ourselves from the vicious circle of unfair resource distribution and capitalism’s work ethic that only benefit the rich and force most of us to misery -- as such start building a post-capitalist world.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, The Netherlands.

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