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OP-ED: The cost of effciency

  • Published at 08:01 pm September 26th, 2021
workers capitalism
Are workers really free under the current system? MEHEDI HASAN

The emphasis on profit swings our attention away from the possibility of a fairer future

Last week in an op-ed, Tim Worstall claimed that we needed somewhat of a capitalist free-market system for global economic growth. In his praise for the promise of capitalism, Tim indicated that capitalism as a system is more efficient in utilizing scarce resources. This view is consistent with many of us who cannot think of any alternatives to capitalism -- a tendency Mark Fisher in 2009 termed as "capitalist realism."

Popularly, free-market capitalism is thought of as a system that engenders an efficient and profitable production process for the capitalist; additionally, capitalism also benefits the consumers by bringing down prices through open competition among the producers. But the argument about the efficiency of capitalism is the rhetoric that buries the exploitative and unsustainable nature of capitalism.

How does capitalist production remain an efficient system? To avoid possible misunderstandings, one must first take note of the premise of the capitalist system. In capitalism, a worker sells his labour-power to a capitalist -- who, by owning the raw materials and tools, stays in control of the production process and decides how the labour of the workers will be used. As a result, the workers lose control over their labour and the final product.

A worker uses his labour on raw materials, and the end product is of more value than the raw materials -- a surplus value is created -- on which the capitalist has exclusive rights. So when the capitalist earns a profit in this system, it comes from the surplus value produced by the workers.

In capitalism, the measure of efficiency is the rate of surplus value or profit. There are two ways to increase the profit or surplus value; firstly, absolute increase, or secondly, relative increase. The absolute increase can only be achieved by urging the workers to work longer, thus producing more. In contrast, a relative increase can happen by improving the work process where the workers may produce more within a shorter time. Hence, the capitalist tries to make the production process more efficient. But there are costs to it.

When capitalists aim for increasing relative surplus value, they plan the work process minutely. They have introduced the division of labour to a precise level -- a worker only produces a component throughout the whole workday. Thus, eventually, it reduces the capacity of the worker immensely.

Before the capitalist work process became dominant, workers would produce a complete product, whereas to increase eciency, they could only work on a part -- like a cog in a machine. For instance: In a capitalist factory, a garment worker would only sew collars of a shirt, some will only make buttonholes, some will only cut the pockets, and so on.

Besides reducing the human ability of workers, the so-called efficient system of capitalism has other myths. The workers are in no way “free” as widely publicized. For instance, whenever news of the workers’ protest for increasing salary and other benefits spread, one remark generally comes up: “If you are not happy with the payment, you may leave.

This sort of comment stands for the irony of our economic system. It has the pretense of allowing individual freedom to work. It is believed that supply and demand will always enable fair transactions.

Nonetheless, this veils structural limitations that deprive the masses of the means of livelihood and force them to work for one or the other capitalist -- which is then treated as an exercise of their free will to work.

Broadly, workers under capitalism are free in a dual sense -- they are free from access to means of production or resources and do not have any capital except labour to sell. So they are making a free choice per se, but they do not have any alternative either.

This predicament is historically created. For instance, after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, trade liberalization and privatization policies had a significant impact on employment and the earnings of the poor. Overall, these processes contributed to extreme economic and social polarization.

The means of production became concentrated in the hands of the rich, and peasants were turned into wage-labourers either to survive or to supplement their income. Hence, a booming garment industry followed, where thousands of workers are now denied a living wage. Many have even died in “accidents” such as the ones at Rana Plaza in 2013 and Tazreen Fashions in 2012.

Recently, a blazing fire killed at least 52 people. It was referred to as an accident. Moreover, the factory owner denied any responsibility for the workers’ deaths, stating that it was an “accident” and that an accident may happen any time in a factory.

Accidents indeed happen, but could the deaths and injuries of the workers be prevented? The testimonies of those who survived revealed that many workers could have been saved if the factory’s fire management features had been better. Survivors and relatives alleged the only entry and exit point factory -- the front gate -- was locked. Besides, the factory building did not have proper fire safety measures that could save the workers.

The emphasis on efficiency and profit reduces the possibilities of a structural shift and complete justice and makes us indifferent to factory buildings’ unsafe structural conditions. More importantly, it contributes to the commodification of workers’ lives and labour and swings our attention away from the possibility of a fairer future.

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

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