the capitalist servitude

Image: Anderson Antonangelo


If we do not recognize the exploitation of labor as the foundation of our current society, we will never be able to establish free social relations

Consulting any dictionary, it can be seen that the term “servitude” refers to a state or condition of a person (or group of individuals) as a “servant” or “slave”. Condition that confers a character of subjection and dependence to the set of social relations established between social subjects; between me, you, the other, and the others. Social relations do not necessarily derive from kinship, friendship, proximity, affinity, etc. The establishment of social relations is inserted as an intrinsic condition of existence itself. It is not a human trait. What constitutes a human particularity is the capacity to transform this existence, to assume command over life and to submit nature to its will (interest).

As a category of analysis (and also existing reality), social relations constitute the basis of any society that has ever existed, exists and will exist. A bee society, for example, represents a highly organized society that can be made up of up to 100 individuals. Social relations are established from the natural characteristics of the bees themselves, separated into workers, the queen and the drones. However, this is an example of a society without transformation, both in terms of the relationship between this society and nature, as well as the social relationships between individuals. Human society, on the other hand, due to the human reasoning capacity, is capable of both altering social relations and transforming nature, throughout its existence.

Mode of production is the category of analysis that allows observing both social relations and their transformations and the stage of technical development (man's dominion over nature). We can, without determinism or stages, configure human history from the set of social relations established in each stage of technical development. In a rather rough way, although didactic for the purposes of this article, we can separate human history into before and after the great mechanized industry. Before this great watershed in human history, the social relations of production were predominantly slavery and servitude, after which they came to be dominated by the salaried type of work. It was only with the great mechanized industry that we completed our dominion over nature, that we were finally able to direct the productive process in an autonomous, self-sustaining way. It was imagined that this form of production and the social relations of production associated with it (salary work) could, in principle, establish a society of free and autonomous men, in the economic, social and political sense. However, the outcome of the process was not that.

The free man, from the legal point of view, is still both serf and slave, from the economic point of view. This is because the evolution of technology did not change the essence of social relations, but only their form (slave, servant, employee). What these forms have in common is that, in essence, they represent a mode of social reproduction in which the exploitation and expropriation of the product of labor constitute an “eternal” social norm, regardless of the technical stage that may be reached; like the curse of eternal return, you know! Norm that is born out of the struggle for existence, but which perpetuates itself forever, even at the stage at which the struggle for existence has ceased to be, to some degree, a necessary condition of life.

Perhaps an example, albeit a literary one, may help to better understand this argument. In Defoe's novel, written in 1719, when Robson Crusoé saves the life of a native, he does not become a man like his savior, he becomes a servant, whose function is to perform the menial service previously performed by Crusoe. The possibility of using another's labor power for self-interest appears almost like a gene that is born in social groups and accompanies civilizations throughout human history. Before capitalism and large-scale mechanized industry, this process took place, either because of the small population or the low level of technique achieved (productivity) through compulsory labor (slavery and servitude). Then, due to the high population level we have reached, together with a highly developed technological level, the process of exploitation and expropriation takes place based on salaried work.

If we observe, without prejudice, the entire evolution of human history, we can conclude without much difficulty that all possible sociability is associated with forms of exploitation and appropriation of the work of others by some. The reasons are the most varied: war; debts; business; theft; expropriation; murder, etc, etc, etc. In any case, economics, as both a practice and a science, has become the most efficient instrument for bringing this social construct to life. And capitalism is the most finished, most developed form of exploitation and expropriation of labor power. But not only that, it also constitutes a perfect mass self-destruction system of human life and nature itself.

If we observe nature, also without prejudice, we will see that the meaning of life contained in it is destruction. The greatness of life thus appears as an instant of existence in a contradiction of unreachable beauty. The lives of wild animals, for example, depend on the lives they destroy to feed themselves. The length of your life depends on it and this is your job, a way to delay the final outcome of your existence. In human society, work is also the way to delay the arrival of our final destination. However, human work does not end the moment it is carried out. Our reasoning ability allows us to accumulate work and create products (means of production, infrastructure, cities, megacities) that spiritually give us a sense of eternity. In this way, human labor becomes the most precious asset, a motive for greed and all sorts of possible and imaginable forms of exploitation and expropriation.

In this sense, a society in which the distributive process is carried out based on the division of total income into salary, profit (interest) and land rent, that is, a society based on salaried work, is not at all different from another in which the basis of social work is slavery or servitude. The proof of this correspondence is somewhat elementary. In slavery, all use value of labor power is owned by the owner of the slave. In serfdom, a part of the use value of labor power belongs to the lord through the transfer of land and/or means of production. In capitalism, the appropriation of the product of labor takes place through the difference between the use value and the exchange value of the labor force.

Generally speaking, exchange value is defined by the subsistence level of an individual in a given society. On the other hand, the use value of labor power produces a greater value than the exchange value (paid wage). Thus, as in other forms, we have a part of the working day that is not paid, it is free work for those who command the workforce. You may question that this is the price of initiative, of entrepreneurship by a particular individual or company. However, in any case, this price is presented as a social cost, as it represents the accumulation of private material wealth by some over others.

In other words, profit is not a social instrument. Profit is not only used to expand and modernize companies, it mainly serves as an instrument of social domination, private concentration of material wealth and command power over others. If this were not the case, we could have a really social distribution of the product. In what way? If income were equally distributed to society, this would mean that profit, for example, would not function as a function of social distinction, of domination and exploitation of the work of others. For all workers in a company would receive equal remuneration, including the capitalist. The company's profit would be destined for social purposes and not privately appropriated. In this way, the importance of social subjects would not be linked to the power of command and exploitation provided by money, but to the social function that each one exercises and everyone would benefit equally from the work product.

Juridical equality in capitalism without a corresponding economic equality represents only a more sophisticated form of appropriation of the product of the work of others in contrast to serf-slave-type social relations. If we do not recognize the exploitation of labor as the foundation of our current society, we will never be able to establish social relations free of domination and dependence.

It is very difficult to hope for a society and humanity different from the one we have achieved. The current stage of development of capitalism with the high level of ease of exploitation of the workforce, provided by the technical-scientific-informational revolution, which produced a process of separation between value creation and the general work process, as well as it also generated the most powerful form of social control (numbing, social separation and acceptance of the world as it is), through new information technologies, making us almost totally impotent in the face of such a context.

We could not end this article without quoting one of the most humane thinkers of all time, who understood and formulated the problem of labor exploitation like no other. Marx (2017, p. 697), in book 1 of Capital, edition of Boitempo, thus allows us to conclude: “[...] In reality, therefore, the law of capitalist accumulation, mystified into a law of nature, expresses only that nature this accumulation excludes any decrease in the degree of exploitation of labor or any rise in the price of labor that could seriously threaten the constant reproduction of the capitalist relationship, its reproduction on an ever-expanding scale. And it could not be otherwise, in a mode of production in which the worker serves the needs of valuing existing values, instead of objective wealth serving the worker's development needs. Just as in religion man is dominated by the product of his own head, so in capitalist production he is dominated by the product of his own hands.”

*José Micaelson Lacerda Morais is a professor in the Department of Economics at URCA.


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