The myth of jobs in a capitalist economy

I will allow you, says the capitalist, to have the honour of serving me, on condition that, in return for the pains I take in commanding you, you give me the little that remains to you. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy

In every political campaign, parties focus heavily on jobs. Whoever can manipulate the data best to show that under their leadership jobs have increased and GDP has grown, or, alternatively, that under the opposition’s leadership, employment has risen or the economy has stagnated, is in a solid position to be elected. Trudeau claims to have created 400,000 jobs in 2017, while job creation under Trump last year was 1.8 million. But what does this mean in reality for workers? Is it fair to say that job growth is a universal good or, as Engels explained, is the “universal harmony and universal prosperity that would be the consequence of unbridled competition”[1] a myth propagated by the bourgeoisie to serve their own class interests?

The aim of this essay is to deconstruct the uncritical praise of jobs; praise devoid of the contemporary capitalist reality of labour. A reality arrived at through generations of capitalist development and class struggle, continuously in motion with tensions rising to the surface in an era of increasingly stark inequality, environmental degradation and settler colonial fascism.

Historically, this reality came about through a process of primitive accumulation: the enclosure movement in England; colonization of much of the world by the European imperial powers; and ongoing accumulation by dispossession. Colonial Canada stealing indigenous land in the name of economic growth and job creation is an excellent case in point. These processes are often framed as a “setting free” of peasants, hunters and gatherers, etc. from their “backward” or “primitive” economy. Dispossessed from their land (which the rising capitalist class sees as an untapped resource for the taking) and their means of subsistence, the eventual proletariats were forced to flock to the cities in a funnel leading to the factory.

Today, urbanization in Africa, for example, is increasing at a faster rate than that in Europe between 1750 and 1950, with the urban population expected to rise to above 50 per cent in 2050 (from 14 per cent in 1950).[2] Alongside this trend is a rise in Special Economic Zones or industrial parks across the continent with the aim of streamlining (read: avoiding) regulation, increasing foreign direct investment, integrating the local into the global economy and creating jobs. The low labour costs here, as compared to the foreign investor’s country, are sure to attract capital.[3]

A similar pattern of assimilation has and continues to take place in Canada through the theft of indigenous land and water, residential schools, and the underfunding of social services on reserves—sanctioned-off areas made to be more inhospitable than they were to begin with. By destroying cultural links—especially those related to land and non-capitalist economies—the ruling class acquires the means of production (land) and the labour power (part-time precarious jobs, often in the tragic business of destroying one’s own territory) necessary to produce capital.

Thus, capitalist labour—producing for profit rather than need—continues to increase because there is an increasing compulsion to it. Labour-power, Marx explains, “is a commodity which its possessor, the wage-worker, sells to the capitalist. Why does he sell it? It is in order to live.”[4] This is the proletarianization of society. And land is at the center of this process for it is the original means of production. In settler colonial Canada, for example, this has manifested in different ways throughout history. Early on, huge swathes of land were cleared—often by Indigenous peoples—after which those who had cleared the land for capital were moved onto reserves. Today, land continues to be a source of unpaid labour in its own right, as Arthur Manuel discusses in regards to the forest industry, accumulated by the Canadian state with little regard to indigenous sovereignty.

This transformation of the means of production, through the accumulation (by the capitalist) of land and the dispossession (of the people) from the land creates the conditions necessary for a capitalist economy. What, then, is the relationship between the dispossessor and the dispossessed? In other words, what is the relationship between the group that owns the land, the means of production and the government (a key tool in the development of capitalism and the perpetuation of exploitation through the state’s monopoly on violence and its various tools of physical and structural oppression) and the group that—through no fault of their own, although we’re constantly told otherwise—are “free” to sell what they have?

This social relation that develops and which underpins capitalism is fundamental to understanding how society works. The aim here is not to dissect this relationship—see Capital for that—but to present a basic outline of it as a platform from which to critique the notion of jobs. The simple diagram below denotes a standard capitalist market process.

Money → Commodity (Labour-power + means of production) → Money + Surplus

The capitalist enters the market with money and purchases two kinds of commodities; labour-power and means of production. Whereas the worker sells to buy, the capitalist buys to sell. The two commodities are then combined in the production process to create a new commodity, which is sold on the market for money (the value of the commodities originally purchased) and surplus money (or surplus value). The value of the new commodity derives from the values that are transferred into it by the original commodities in the production process (i.e. the cost to reproduce those commodities). The value of labour-power, however, is peculiar in that it transfers more value into the new commodity than it itself is worth. This added value, produced by the labourer (at no added cost to the capitalist), is where the capitalist obtains their surplus value; their capital. And it is here where Marx makes the distinction between labour and labour-power: the former being the real value transferred into the commodity; the latter being that which equates to the labourer’s wage, for the worker is nothing more than a commodity that receives the minimum required to maintain itself, although this happens to varying degrees depending on the worker’s relationship to the means of production.[5]

This relationship is exploitative for the worker. As mentioned before, s/he creates more value (for the capitalist) than s/he is worth. As such, the lower the wages, the more profit the capitalist can extract from the value of the new commodity. Without owning the means of production, the worker has almost no control over these wages, let alone control over the supply and demand of the labour market—a luxury reserved for the capitalist class and their capitalist state.

Thus, Marx opens the Communist Manifesto with the line, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Part of that struggle, however, is a dependency. The capitalist depends on the worker for the valorization of capital while the worker depends on the capitalist for life. Job growth, therefore, might be good for the worker (assuming they’re already dispossessed from their means of production and have no choice but to sell their labour) but simultaneously strengthens the capitalist class, for their strength comes from the exploitation of labour. It’s a sort of toxic symbiotic relationship. Talking about capitalist strength, we should not discount unemployment, which equates to bargaining power for the capitalist class who can use this surplus labour to drive down wages even further. After all, increased vulnerability leads to increased profit; music to the capitalist’s ears.

So when we hear about job growth, we need to ask, under what terms? Part-time, temporary, low paid, as the trend seems to suggest? The same can be said for general praises for rising GDP and a growing economy. For whom? A growing economy suggests more is being produced, more people are employed and more money is being circulated. This warrants an analysis beyond the scope of this essay but what we’re seeing is that despite, or perhaps because of, job growth, workers’ lives are becoming more difficult; productivity is outpacing pay; meanwhile the cost of living continues to skyrocket. In Canada, 11 out of 13 provinces and territories have seen a rise in the use of food banks in recent years with Canada as a whole experiencing a nearly 30 per cent increase since 2008, in a climate of supposed growth. Capitalism cannot provide (and has little interest in providing) the basic necessities for human life.

The problem is not a lack of jobs. More jobs will not end outsourcing and automation and it certainly won’t end the nature of work in the present capitalist economy. More jobs in the service of capital will only perpetuate—and make stronger—the fundamentally unequal and oppressive relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. More jobs equates to more capitalist appropriation of workers’ unpaid labour. Workers across the spectrum should be weary of jobs in the present capitalist economy; there is unity in exploitation.

This is not a critique of jobs, period. This is a critique of the nature of jobs in the present capitalist economy. The supposed universal good of jobs cannot be disconnected from capitalist labour relations, including the destruction of other forms of work (and land) in favour of those more profitable to the bourgeoisie, the unpaid labour of housework and care, and the fact that the capitalist doesn’t produce anything yet lives comfortably off the backs of others.

Resistance to poor working conditions, however, often amounts to resistance to the side-effects of a corrupt system.[6] Although resistance can be anti-capitalist in practice and raise the class-consciousness necessary for more revolutionary change, the point here is that concessions, such as around wages and working days, are not enough and can very quickly be taken back by the ruling class (for example, France in 1968). Therefore, liberation will not come about through bandaid solutions granted by the ruling class. Liberation can only come from acknowledging and addressing the root cause of the problem and overthrowing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

To quote Marx at length:

Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.

If there is anything natural about capitalism, it is the tendency towards exploitation and crisis.

Title photo courtesy of here.


[1] Freidrich Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. 1880.

[2] African Economic Outlook 2016, AFD, OECD, UNDP.

[3] The industrial parks in Ethiopia boast income and export tax exemptions for foreign investors yet low wages and dispossession of rural residents. See here, here and here.

[4] Karl Marx. Wage Labour and Capital. Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1849.

[5] There exists in many contexts a labour aristocracy that is both exploited under, and benefits from, capitalism.

[6] Karl Marx. Value, Price and Profit. 1865.


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