The Americans come down!

Image: Allan So


The Americana crisis is a crisis created by the very contradictions of the capitalist market

The present world, including Brazil, does not seem to be in any way different from the past lived and analyzed by Karl Marx in his works of criticism of capitalism. The collapse of the Americanas is proof of that. Marx and the arduous reading of his The capital could be dispensed with if this collapse actually had an ethical-moral foundation as its cause, a flaw in the character of its top executives and majority shareholders, bad faith and a misconduct in business management, a conduct, in short, incompatible with the principles of ethics and morality.

If this were the case, Marx could be replaced by the more pleasant reading of Aristotle and Kant. But not! The collapse of the Americanas has nothing to do with the problem of the immoral conduct of its market agents. The collapse of the Americanas has an objective, rational and scientific foundation that is totally independent of morality, a foundation that resides in the very way of being of the market, in its dichotomies, divisions, ironies, paradoxes and contradictions.

The market is a big machine in permanent movement, made up of parts, gears, pulleys, belts and motor forces fed by money. If one of these parts or gears breaks or fails, if the machine is not continually fed with new flows of money, the whole machine seizes up and fatally collapses.

The market machine is made up of at least five important parts or gears: (i) the base extractive industry, that part that is directly linked to the exploitation of nature and provides the so-called raw material for the transformation industry, such as agriculture, livestock, mining and power and fuel plants; (ii) the manufacturing industry, the part formed by manufacturers and manufacturers that modify and complete the work started by the base industry; (iii) the wholesaler, the party that buys from the manufacturer and makes the manufactured thing available to the retailer; (iv) the retailer, the party that puts the thing in the hands of the final buyer; (v) the final buyer or consumer, the mass of individuals who will destroy the thing in consumption. In the midst of this gear, banks act by lending money to businesses and taking part of wages and surplus value produced through interest.

The impulse that drives this machine is the accumulation of money on ever-increasing scales. The manufactured thing is a commodity whose only thing that matters, therefore, is being exchanged for money – real money. The problem begins, however, with the fact that all acts of exchange carried out between these different gears are made with money that is not money in the strict sense, they are made with promissory notes, with documents that promise to pay the thing effectively in cash only in one future term and which have merely legal value, but not economic value.

Money, the final and absolute goal of this immense gear, initially appears and works, thus, only as a means of payment, as a promise of effectively being money only in the future. The realization of surplus value, however, cannot be done with mere legal titles, but with actual money.

This whole chain of acts of exchange works, thus, initially, with credit provided by the seller. The goods are delivered to the buyer in the present against a promise of payment in the future. Thus, all the cogs in the market merge into a chain of links and commitments that depends entirely on money actually appearing as money. The dependence of the market on the circulation of money, therefore, is a fundamental trait of this contraption. Money must emerge and circulate between all parts of this machine, redeem the issued promissory notes and complete the final goal of the process: to gather and pile up money.

The machine jams, therefore, every time there is a lack of money. Its movement becomes slower, the chain of shifts turns more slowly, the delay and sluggishness of the continual flow of shifts rusts its gears, and the machine may fail. For the flow to be permanent, therefore, and for the machine not to lose the vigor of its movements, continuous and growing additions of money are essential, as the machine has an insatiable glutton for money, cash, cash. The ideal money as a means of payment does not satisfy her.

Even if the machine as a whole produces for the sake of producing and exchanges for exchange, even if its final goal is money, it is entirely subject to human consumption, to the movements of the last piece of the system, to the existence of money in the pocket of the final consumer, to the piece that appears on the market with real money and makes it possible for the retailer to redeem his promissory notes with the wholesaler, the latter with the manufacturer and the latter, in turn, with the raw material supplier. The Americanas went bankrupt and, thus, broke the link with their suppliers, because there was no money in the pocket of the final buyer of the barter system.

This lack of money in the pocket of the final buyer can be attested to by the drop in the volume of wages available and by the relationship between this mass and the country's GDP investigated by the IBGE. From 2019 to 2022, the ratio between the Brazilian GDP and the wage bill of workers dropped sharply from 43,5% to 30,9%. In three years there was a brutal drop of 12,6% in the total consumption capacity of the Brazilian working class. Roughly speaking, around 25 billion reais disappeared from the pockets of the working class as a whole. This same disappearance is at the base of the bankruptcy of the Americanas.

The insatiable and permanent gluttony of capital for money applauded the suffering of the working class and the wage squeeze during the pandemic, applauded the labor and social security reform, precarious jobs, the intermittent, rotating and poorly paid wage system, applauded the real fall in the minimum wage and the freezing of civil servants' wages, the end of the Ministry of Labor, the end of inspection of factories, the threat and murder of their professionals, applauded, in short, the increase in exploitation of the Brazilian working class. Now, capital's insatiable voracity for blood and human lives, contradictorily, takes its toll and reacts on the irrational pretensions of the capitalist machine as a whole.

As if the fall in the total mass of wages in recent years was not enough, there was also a fall in the real purchasing power of individual worker wages. Although, in certain cases, the number of employees in the country has grown and thus the size of unemployment has decreased, the new jobs were offered for a lower salary than the previous one. Added to this is the fact that the percentage of jobs with wages below the minimum wage has also increased.

To make matters worse, the minimum wage in recent years has deteriorated below the years prior to Jair Bolsonaro. As if all this were not enough, the inflation of food, rent, pharmacy, fuel, transport and other essential consumer objects for workers, the bill for their own house, the financed old car and the white goods, took most of the worker's salary , leaving very little to spend on American baubles.

The market is a huge machine devouring human lives. Capital has a single life impulse – the permanent accumulation of money. This impulse leads the individual capitalist not only to the overexploitation of the working class, but also to the unlimited expansion of his businesses and the emergence of new competitors. Alongside this super-exploitation, new capitalists appear, more fanatical and crazed than usual, in search of money, money that, as we have seen, disappeared and traditional market operators lack.

The best-known and popularized case of this fanaticism of competition among us is that of the Havan stores, a store that practically did not exist until the 2.000s. Havan, a direct competitor of Americanas, had, in 2002, just five stores in the south of the country. In 2011, boosted with public resources from the BNDES, it jumped to 24. In 2018, always with public resources, it jumped to 107 and now it has reached 173 megastores spread throughout the Brazilian territory, directly competing with the Americanas' businesses, taking part of their clientele and the money it lacked to settle its debts with creditors: manufacturers, wholesalers and banks – public and private. Alongside Havan, there are also powerful competitors such as Amazon and direct purchases from China through shopping applications such as Shopee.

The Americanas crisis does not seem to us, therefore, as we indicated in the introduction, a crisis arising from the moral conduct of its managers and shareholders, even though they may be conceived as immoral and despicable men. The crisis does not originate in the moral conduct of market agents because, in a certain sense, the entire market, even in times of prosperity, has its logic governed by the immorality of objectification and exploitation of man by man.

A first defect of the moral critique of the market is due to the fact that morality is governed by the principle of what should be and not the effective being of the thing. To objectively understand the market, it is necessary to understand its effective constitution and its real logic. A second defect is due to the fact that moral criticism is always laden with emotivism and subjectivism, often functioning as a mere projection outside of us of grudges and frustrated desires for justice. The moral critique of the market is always a bourgeois and liberal critique. Although inflamed by the beauty and ardor of the desire for justice, moral criticism accepts that everything remains as it is as long as everything is in accordance with the punitive yearnings of our desire.

The Americanas crisis is an objective and economic crisis that develops in a specific branch of production: the branch of production of consumer goods for the worker. A crisis that can be theoretically understood first, as a crisis of money in its function as a means of payment, second, as a crisis of underconsumption at the pole of the working class, third, as a crisis of oversupply of products in relation to the solvent capacity of the buyer's market, fourth, as a crisis in the realization of part of the surplus value made with mere legal titles, fifth, as a crisis arising from the anarchy of the market and the free initiative of the individual capitalist and, sixth, as a crisis arising from the excessive madness of capital, which only finds limits in the increasingly shrinking measure of human consumption.

The Americanas crisis, in short, is a crisis created by the very contradictions of the capitalist market. It is also a crisis that seems to extend to other retail stores such as the multinational C&A which is being sold to Lojas Renner and is not limited to the sphere of exchange, but which is beginning to expand into the world of production and its national competitors, such as Riachuelo, which announced the closure of its production unit in Ceará and will lay off around 2 workers.

Only one thing can save Americans: money, cash and cash. The market machine does not work without it. If it disappeared from the worker's pocket, it must be found in other pockets. In case it is not saved, by the pockets of the shareholders, by the banks, by new investors or by the government, the Americanas will succumb to the war of all against all and to the same fate as the old Mesbla, Mappin and Arapuã, bankrupt by the same current contradictions and for the same disappearance of money from the worker's pocket.

*Jadir Antunes and pprofessor of philosophy at Unioeste. Co-author, with Hector Benoit, of The problem of the capitalist crisis in Marx's Capital (Editorial Pack).

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