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Working for cool capitalists

George Burns

September 12, 2016

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m cutting the tops off of strawberries. The gleaming countertop reflects back an image of me as I work: vintage Indigo Girls t-shirt, tidy little moustache, blue paisley bandana. In the background the stereo plays Jazz standards off of a youtube playlist and two customers argue over how best to pickle green beans. An idyllic scene: hipster at work.

I was born in the 1990’s, and thus my entire working life has taken place in the context of a major capitalist crisis. I have been lucky enough to find work in this economy, but the jobs I’ve held have by no means been secure, lucrative, or even reliable. I’ve never worked for more than twelve dollars an hour and I’ve never been treated as a full-time employee, though I have certainly worked full time hours. Unlike many of my peers, however, I have never worked for a fast food chain. I have never had to wear a uniform or watch training videos from corporate headquarters. Every job I have ever held has been with a small independent business.

Austerity and cool capitalism

Despite the precarious nature of my work and the meager wage it earns me, to my peers, my current job and others I have held make me lucky. I’ve had a few cool jobs—I’ve worked for a craft brewery, an independent bookstore, a few independent restaurants, and an organic food store. My friends tell me I have the coolest jobs. They work at Arby’s, or Petco. A job like mine is what many of them are hunting for. They want to work somewhere small and independent, where they can listen to good music, wear their own clothing, and grow a beard without having to wear a net over it. They want cool jobs. To me, the fact that my peers consider cool jobs good jobs reveals just how much my generation has had to lower its expectations towards work.

Youth unemployment in Canada stands at 13 per cent, twice the national average. According to the Canadian Labour Congress, twice that number is underemployed—meaning they work part-time, or at a low-income job. At the same time, union density rates in Canada have plummeted to an all time-low of 28.8 per cent. This decline is most pronounced among young workers. Forget a living wage, protection against arbitrary dismissal, benefits, a pension, a modicum of control over our workplaces, or even a regular schedule; the best we can hope for is a less humiliating minimum wage job.

Part of the appeal of cool jobs is no doubt due to a radical adjustment of expectations, but this alone is not a sufficient explanation. Many of my co-workers are proud to work for independent businesses. I have witnessed young workers living paycheque to paycheque in one of Canada’s most expensive cities volunteer their leisure time to work a cash register without pay for the benefit of the private for-profit company they work for. To many, small independent businesses represent an ethical way of doing business.

I used to hold this view. When I was younger I sought out independent businesses for employment, vowing to myself that I would never work for a chain. I was motivated by a vague anti-corporatism, but had not yet become acquainted with Marx’s brilliant critique of capitalism. As a socialist, I go to work conscious of the fact that I am being exploited. I take home my twelve dollars an hour knowing that about twice that sum is being stolen from me before I’m even paid. I didn’t figure this out on my own. Marx, Engels, and the countless thinkers they have inspired have mapped the world of work extensively. Since first becoming politicized I have read the work of Marxists and been thrilled by the incredible bravery and steadfast determination of generations of activists, organizers, and labour militants, risking their lives and livelihoods in confrontation with Capital. 

When I turn to my own workplace, however, I feel a bit strange: “surely my workplace isn’t all that bad. It’s independently owned! Look, there’s the owner right now, wearing a t-shirt and sweeping the floor! The counters are made of reclaimed barn wood! There’s a record player in the corner! How could my boss possibly be an exploiter when he’s so cool?”

“Crony capitalism”

This attitude is common amongst my peers, and it echoes one of the most common liberal apologies for capitalism’s greatest excesses: this isn’t capitalism, it’s crony capitalism! After almost a decade of recession, all but the most reactionary market fetishists will admit that capitalism has problems. Though capital’s apologists acknowledge some of Capitalism’s faults, they present these problems to us as something external to capitalism: the disease of greed eating away at the good ol’ American way.

The desire to work for cool capitalists reveals an acceptance of this narrative. The inevitability of capitalism has been drilled into us since childhood. Because capitalism seems eternal, and because we have been taught that imagining alternatives to capitalism is naïve and hopelessly passé, many of my peers look for solutions to capitalism’s problems within the framework of capitalism. To many, small business capitalism presents an appealing alternative to the status quo. After all, the local restaurant owner doesn’t buy wells in Africa and sell the water back at extortionate rates. The cool capitalist may have socially progressive ideas, and even support social democratic parties. Without a class perspective, the small business capitalist looks very different from his big competitor. In this conception, scale is the problem, and not substance: if every business was small, then maybe the globe plundering impulses of capitalism could be restrained. Social Democratic parties are quick to lend support to this view of capitalism. They tell us that we just need to make some minor tweaks, break up a few banks, begin a few public works projects, and we’ll be right back to a friendly meritocracy, where everyone can work to better their lot in life.

The truth is this ideal version of capitalism, where every business is small and every worker is treated fairly, has never existed and it never will. As Lenin wrote in his pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “The enormous growth of industry and the remarkably rapid concentration of production in ever-larger enterprises are one of the most characteristic features of capitalism.” Even as Lenin was writing at the dawn of the 20th century, production was dominated by a tiny group of enormous corporations. This tendency is even more pronounced now, with the largest 147 businesses controlling 40 per cent of the wealth in the global economy. The endless growth and cutthroat competition of capitalism makes the growth of individual businesses inevitable. Our bourgeois government cannot be relied upon to restrain capitalist expansion because it itself is a tool of the capitalist class, tasked with maintaining an atmosphere in which capital can operate freely.

“Independent” business

Even if it were possible to restrain capitalism’s tendency towards capital concentration and eventually monopoly, would the fantasy of small business capitalism really mean an end to exploitation? Of course not. Small businesses are just as exploitative as multinational corporations, just on a smaller scale. The owner of a private business, regardless of how large or small it is, regardless of how “independent” they claim to be, depends on profit. The little craft brewery with its brickwork counter and funky wall art could not exist without stealing from its workers a portion of the value they produce. This theft is the same whether the thief is big or small. The awesome productive forces of our species are the result of millennia of human labour, and these forces, along with the materials available to us, are the common inheritance of the entire human race. Private ownership of capital is parasitism, an injustice whether big or small.

Many of my peers acknowledge that cool capitalists are just as exploitative as big capitalists, but they see exploitation as inevitable—maybe even fair if everyone gets their chance to become the exploiter. Again, capitalism is viewed as problematic because of its excesses, which are treated as some kind of external problem which can be dealt with without fundamentally challenging the logic of capitalism. If every capitalist was a small capitalist, then maybe we could have peace and stability.

Unfortunately for this viewpoint, class antagonism is real. Even if we were to ignore the expropriation of the products of our labour by a class of parasites, even if the unchecked perpetual expansion necessitated by capital were not endangering our ability to live on this planet through the threat of catastrophic climate change, even then capitalism would still be inherently unstable due to the conflict it creates between classes. This antagonistic relationship is the same in a small independent business as it is in a multinational corporation. Competition between capitalists obliges business owners to pay as low a wage as they possibly can, regardless of how small or how cool their business is. Squeezed between inflation and the capitalist impulse to lower wages, workers are forced to resist capital in order to protect their purchasing power, and thus their material existence. As long as there are owners and workers, there will be conflict between them. Restricting the size of businesses can never resolve this basic contradiction, which is inherent to capitalism.

Beyond capitalism

Every day, we are confronted with the failures of capitalism. Our planet is heating rapidly, but rather than confronting the massive challenge that is climate change with all the creativity and ingenuity of our species, we continue to dig oil and coal out of the ground, risking the future habitability of our planet for the sake of short-term profit. Thousands of passionate, skilled young people sit idle, unemployed due to the whims of capital, while all around us infrastructure crumbles. My generation is not stupid, and they have correctly identified their greatest antagonists: the tiny class of robber barons who control the world’s largest capitalist enterprises. Distressed by capitalism’s senseless waste and brutal destruction of human lives, but blinkered by the deeply ingrained notion that the present economic system is inevitable and eternal, young people turn to cool capitalists for a solution.

But cool capitalists cannot fix capitalism’s problems. The failures of capitalism are systemic. Changing a few parts will not change the nature of the machine. The concentration of capital, leading to the rise of vast corporate empires, is the inevitable outcome of private ownership of capital. Small businesses cannot compete against multinational corporations, and even if they could, they would not put an end to exploitation, expropriation, and the struggle of class against class.

Capitalism cannot be saved. The only real solution to the failures of capitalism is the complete reorganization of the economy along democratic lines. The bourgeois state must be dismantled, and the bourgeois class must be stripped of its power to oppress and exploit. Only by sharing the abundance that this planet offers can we eliminate poverty. Only by establishing worker control of production can we provide for ourselves in a free and equitable manner. Only by intelligently marshaling the vast productive power of our species can we cope with the threat of climate change and learn to live on this planet in a sustainable fashion.

We can build a just future, but we’ll have to do it ourselves. The capitalists won’t help us, cool or otherwise.

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