The Value of Human Labor

workerDonald Trump has said that his net worth fluctuates based on several factors, including how he feels. He seems to assign an arbitrarily large value to his name as a brand, which is like if I claimed my net worth is $250 million and some change, because my blog has 250 followers at the moment and each one makes me feel like a million bucks. That’s not the way it works in the real world, of course. However, there’s a tiny smudge of truth behind Trump’s ridiculous claims. I doubt he’s aware of it, since Trump and the truth don’t seem to have any sort of relationship, but it’s there.

The truth is that value is an inherently subjective thing, much like morality and for the same reasons. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember an article I wrote back in 2014 in which I said “beauty is a relationship between the observer and the observed”. My basic premise is that the whole concept of value exists only in the minds of sentient observers, and it forms the foundation of beauty, morality, and other concepts that rely on making a judgment about the desirability of things.

So it’s true that feelings can affect value, since the value of an object is the amount of stuff someone is willing to give up for it. But you couldn’t feel that gold is worth $2 million an ounce and then expect to sell it for that price. Nobody would pay it because they know they can get it cheaper elsewhere. Which means that even though value is subjective, it’s not subject to the whims of a single person.

Whenever I debate morality with religious people, they seem to be incapable of comprehending how a subjective thing could be defined by a group of people instead of a single person. They see “morality is subjective” and think it means each individual gets to decide whether or not stabbing people is a good thing. In reality, it means that the concepts of “good” and “evil” describe how humans experience things, like being given a cookie or being stabbed, which are subjective experiences even though we all generally have the same opinion of them. I’ve beaten this concept to death with numerous articles, so I won’t go into it further here.

Just like morality is defined by the subjective experiences of humanity in general, the value of things in our economy is defined by the desires of the community as a whole. Aside from a few unique exceptions, our goods get their value from a complex relationship between supply, demand, and the aggregate of the population’s subjective opinions regarding them. What’s not usually included in the equation is the seller’s feeling about how much his goods are worth. As someone who has sold car parts and other items on eBay for many years, I know that regardless of what I think an item is worth, there may be other sellers who list it cheaper, and buyers may not be willing to pay even that much, so often I must accept a lower price if I want to sell anything.

But that whole concept of value falls apart when you try to apply it to human labor. In a world where survival is tied to work and wages are set by supply and demand, a lot of people would starve to death if there’s too much supply or too little demand for workers. The value of human labor cannot be expressed in terms of supply and demand, because the availability of workers has no effect on the amount of goods a worker can produce. Since the production of goods is how an employer makes money, that’s the number they will consider when offering wages; the number of people applying for the job means almost nothing (except in rare cases). So the only real basis for assigning a monetary value to human labor is productivity, which means the value of your labor is the value of the goods you produce.

Or, perhaps more accurately, human labor is what creates the value of the goods in the first place.

Capitalists figured out how to hoodwink enough people into thinking that human labor is a commodity, and in doing so they recreated the same basic problem inherent to slavery and feudalism. The problem is simple: in order for an economic system to be truly fair and merit-based, every worker would need to receive compensation equal to the value of the goods they produced. However, most capitalists won’t pay workers that much because there wouldn’t be any profit left over for them. So in order for a capitalist society to function, it has to convince the workers that their labor is worth less than they produce, and that the labor of the rich is worth more than they produce. It has to block the workers from being able to produce and sell goods on their own. This system of employment is fundamentally unfair and deceptive; it uses free market principles as a facade to hide the fact that there’s nothing free about it. This system cannot function without redistributing wealth from the people who produced it to people who didn’t. It can’t function without devaluing human labor and by extension devaluing human life.

Treating human labor as a commodity is the fundamental flaw of slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, because it leads inevitably to a concentration of wealth (and by extension power) in the hands of very few people. When you make it easy for the rich to obtain wealth without producing it themselves, by letting them purchase the labor of the poor for less than it’s worth, you create a situation in which people who are already rich have much better opportunities for obtaining more wealth, while the poor continue struggling as they produce that wealth for the rich. It’s a simple mathematical imbalance, and it’s the reason the 62 richest people in the world now own as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. They didn’t earn that money; the poor earned it for them.

The irony here is that capitalists claim to be champions of small business and the average citizen, but the basic principles of their ideology are opposed to a democratized economy. They say socialism doesn’t work because you need rich people and big corporations to create jobs and products, yet the main reason they need big corporations is because they’ve constructed barriers for smaller ones. The reason they need rich investors is because they’ve created a system in which individuals cannot sell their productivity for what it’s worth. This is like a dictator claiming a totalitarian government is necessary to prevent government agents from exercising tyranny over the people. The system that caused the problem is being promoted as the solution to the problem.

There are numerous ways to fix it. Some businesses are distributing a share of profits among the workers, or putting ownership directly in their hands. Platforms like Etsy, eBay, Amazon, CreateSpace, Kickstarter, and others are providing small businesses and individuals with the means to reach a large customer base, something that was much more difficult before the internet. Self-publishing platforms especially have had a major impact on capitalist media, since the people who produce content are now able to reach a larger audience without giving most of the profit generated by their work to a corporation.

An economic system in which workers receive all of the profits generated by their labor is called socialism. Free market socialism is far better for the little guy than capitalism, since you don’t have to already be rich in order to earn as much wealth as you produce. It’s also better for the economy in general, because when workers earn more they spend more, which creates more demand, which demands more supply (or higher prices), which makes businesses grow, which means they can hire more workers, which means more people have money to spend, and the cycle continues. In addition, there are plenty of workers who have great ideas for companies or products, but lack the means to create them. If they earned more, then more of them would be able to start small businesses, which would increase innovation and create more jobs. Capitalism is the enemy of innovation and job creation because it excludes most of the population from taking part in those activities, and empowers those who already have power rather than those whose products and business models work the best.

The encouraging thing is that technology has brought us to a tipping point, where an increasing number of industries are becoming more efficient with a socialist business model than a capitalist one. The worrying thing is that there are efforts to undermine the democratic nature of the internet, which would allow the opportunities it offers to be hoarded and controlled by the rich, turning it into just another tool for suppressing wages, innovation, small business, and job growth.

The frightening thing is that the longer capitalism endures, the worse its fall will be, and people like Donald Trump seem determined to draw it out as long as possible. The twenties are coming again.

Image: Pexels

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