It would be a mistake to view today’s finance capitalism as the “final stage” of industrial capitalism. The name of the new game is neofeudalism and austerity, and its preferred mode of exploitation is debt peonage. Like creditors in ancient Rome, today’s financial power is seeking to replace democracy with a financial oligarchy. The result is a resurgence of pre-capitalist “primitive accumulation,” by debt creation and foreclosure rather than the military conquests of past epochs.
Much of the dismantling of the social fabric that describes the general malaise of our times is not visible to the consumer or generic citizen. However, to peer down the darkened hallways in the backstage of American business is to glimpse the machinations of a frightening leviathan that subsumes social power in a manner that cannot be conceptualized in the traditional left vs. right paradigm.
The issue at hand is privatization, the stalwart conviction that free markets are the only means of adjudication for the natural tension between self seeking utility maximization of the individual, and the needs and rights of society as a independent entity. The perpetrators have constructed an arena of false contest, populated with sacrificial ideological tropes in pursuit of their real agenda.
It is the purpose of this article to examine some of the hidden means by which privatization- as practiced by the bourgeoisie- is being used to subsume the sovereignty of both individuals and small businesses.
A critical component to understanding privatization is to understand the need for obfuscation, e.g. to become invisible. Barring this, the next best defense against revolution and dissent is to deny that any disagreement exists, or if it does, then to valorize it and present it as irrefutable status quo, thus enjoining the conservatives who are loathe to change anything deemed as established, and can be counted on to circle the wagons in the so called “pursuit of liberty”.
Staunchly in the category of invisibility is the entire concept of rent-seeking, which is to say, the premise of unearned labor, or in plain English, getting something for nothing. Much of the financial economy of today is nearly totally dedicated to rent-seeking activities, so called financial engineering that attempts, through various debt mechanisms, to extract value from either land or industrial production without adding any value whatsoever. (For a particularly good and thorough discussion of rent seeking see this article)
If you are getting something for nothing, the last thing you want is for anyone else to know of this; so much of the current media discussion is either valorizing the financial class, or by working to maintain the invisibility of the rent-seeking genre. An understanding of this rent-seeking activity, and it’s relationship to so-called “free market” dynamics is critical to debunking the more mainstream conservative and Libertarian theories of economics, which crumble rather quickly within this framework.
Another frame of reference which adds to this discussion is a remedial listing of the three circuits of Capitalism, a.) Industrial capitalism, b.) Mercantilist Capitalism, and c.) Finance (Money lending) Capitalism. All three strains utilize exploitation to achieve access to surplus value, and all three seek to exchange supra-profits for social power. To illustrate, we can look at the Forbes list of the top 10 wealthiest Americans, and we can see that these three strains are all represented:
1. Bill Gates Microsoft (Industrial Capitalist)
2. Warren Buffett Berkshire Hathaway (Finance Capitalist)
3. Larry Ellison Oracle (Industrial Capitalist).
4. Christy Walton Walmart (Mercantile Capitalist)
5. Charles Koch manufacturing, energy (Industrial Capitalist)
6. David Koch manufacturing, energy (Industrial Capitalist)
7. Jim Walton Walmart (Mercantile Capitalist)
8. Alice Walton Walmart (Mercantile Capitalist)
9. S. Robson Walton Walmart (Mercantile Capitalist)
10. Michael Bloomberg (Finance Capitalist)
What is interesting about the relationship of these three strains is the internal competition for surplus value which is quite remarkable and very vigorous. Most of the publicized argument for regulatory constraints against the Finance Capitalist for example, is not from consumers or citizens, but stems from Industrial Capitalists who are loathe to give up surplus value to rent-seekers, preferring instead to capture this surplus for their own uses.
To further set the stage for our discussion, we can examine briefly the extents of control on modern media and the political economy by these three strains. The Financial Capitalists dominate the levers of power through direct capture of government figures, usually by interchanging and exchanging employees back and forth through key positions, as well their highly documented financial contributions. The Mercantilists however, are dominant in the advertising media, preferring instead to take their case directly to the consumer, shaping and stimulating demand by convincing consumers to purchase products and services that they did not know they needed. The long standing and principal Industrial Capitalists of course use both media and government to advance their objectives, but they add another dimension to their ideological control by purchasing controlling stakes in free market think tanks, such as the Libertarian Cato Institute (Koch brothers), the Heritage Foundation, and many others. Most of the so called “free market” think tanks that are influential on public policy can be traced to a controlling interest from Industrial Capital.
So we can see that the three strains of capital have hegemony in their own unique portals, influencing public policy with free domain to the exchange of their out-sized surplus values into social power.
The end game of all this is for the furtherance of rent-seeking activities. This is done in many different ways, but the subject of this article is a focus on privatization, and specifically the behind-the-scenes activities that are imposed on small businesses as well as employees.
The top level observation regarding the push to privatization is that it simply allows capitalist enterprise, large and small, to subvert constitutional protections by engaging private citizens in superficially mutual contracts. Modern political philosophy has been co-opted to allow wide ranging civil rights abuses under the cover of “mutual consent” in the context of a contract between private parties.
Examples would be private party contracts between employees (employment agreements) and between large and small businesses (supply agreements) .
Once private citizens enter into so called mutual contracts, the court system provides wide latitude for enforcement of virtually any draconian measure, as long as two private parties ostensibly agree. In many cases, basic constitutional protections are circumvented, and the entire principle of political economy is upended in the favor of the author of the contract. In theory, the employee or small business has the “right” to not sign any agreement which runs roughshod over his best interests, but in practice, such options are not readily available, particularly for employment agreements, when a prospective employee may be in desperate need of a job, as he or she is forced to sell his labor power for sustenance wages. If there are insufficient offerings of competing private employment contracts (as is often the case) the prospective employee must take what he can get- however onerous and biased the contractual terms are.
This is of course the objective of the Capitalist economy, to 1.) insure a standing army of unemployed workers, at the ready, to fill on demand openings in the Capitalist mode of production, incurring no costs to the Capitalist until such time as this labor power is needed, and then when needed to hire only using draconian and highly biased employment agreements that transfer State-like control to a Capitalist entity that is much better positioned to provide enforcement. 2.) To externalize costs to the greatest degree possible, such as societal infrastructure costs, by creating a privatized, Capitalist entity to take over former State controlled functions and to apply the aforementioned labor principles to realize this new profit center, that can cater such services only to these that can afford them, while exploiting those that provide labor power to these privatized entities.
Once these externalized functions are brought under the umbrella of the Capitalist mode of production, the issue of mutually agreeable contract law can be brought to bear to strip these workers of their Constitutional rights, and further weaken any efforts to consolidate and resist.
The folks over at Crooked Timber have provided some particularly good examples and arguments around this notion of using contract law to subvert even basic liberties:
Life at Work
To understand the limitations of these …….. we have to understand how little freedom workers enjoy at work. Unfreedom in the workplace can be broken down into three categories.
1. Abridgments of freedom inside the workplace
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.
2. 2. Abridgements of freedom outside the workplace
In addition to abridging freedoms on the job, employers abridge their employees’ freedoms off the job. Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates (“work for John Kerry or work for me”), failing to donate to employer-approved candidates, challenging government officials, writing critiques of religion on their personal blogs (IBM instructs employees to “show proper consideration…for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory—such as politics and religion”), carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, for reporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband. Again, this is all legal in many states, and in the states where it is illegal, the laws are often weak.
3. 3. Use of sanctions inside the workplace as a supplement to—or substitute for—political repression by the state
While employers often abridge workers’ liberty off the job, at certain moments, those abridgments assume a larger function for the state. Particularly in a liberal state constrained by constitutional protections such as the First Amendment, the instruments of coercion can be outsourced to—or shared with—the private sector. During the McCarthy period, for example, fewer than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs, but as many as 40% of American workers—in both the public and private sectors—were investigated (and a smaller percentage punished) for their beliefs.
And, perhaps most succinctly:
What makes the private sector, especially the workplace, such an attractive instrument of repression is precisely that it can administer punishments without being subject to the constraints of the Bill of Rights. It is an archipelago of private governments, in which employers are free to do precisely what the state is forbidden to do: punish without process. Far from providing a check against the state, the private sector can easily become an adjutant of the state. Not through some process of liberal corporatism but simply because employers often share the goals of state officials and are better positioned to act upon them.
So this is the end state that the “free market” evangelists push for, this is the holy grail of privatization, externalized costs to a system that can act outside of the constraints of the Bill of Rights.
We can extend this discussion to the even further reaches of transparency, that of the nature of contracts between large and small businesses. In addition to the above noted employer/employee social relations enforced under a Capitalist entity governed by private contract, the same private contract modality has some startling repercussions for business:
1.) Mercantilists demand slotting fees to product producers for prominent product (shelf) placement at retail locations. They routinely create profit centers with draconian shipping requirements, for example, if a shipping label is off center from a specific location on a carton by even an inch, the producer is fined for each instance of this deviation. Missing or incorrectly filled out paperwork, spelling errors, any excuse for a “deviation” results in a back charge (fine) to the producers. It is not unusual to see small manufacturers shipping product to “big box” retailers, and to have so many back charges that their entire profit margin is consumed before the first unit is even sold. Which of course, is the goal.
2.) Small manufacturers are expected to honor dubious return policies, many large retailers force contract language on suppliers that require them to accept returns months, sometime years after shipment, often when the product was clearly misused. Replacement costs are often entirely pushed onto the supplier, yielding a system that is nearly impossible to accurately track inventory, when such products are never really sold, if they can be returned for full credit months later.
3.) Contract language for even small, non-mercantilist orders has escalated dramatically over the last few years. Consider:
a. Supply agreements can dictate and restrict any outspoken political dissent or endorsement.
b. You can be forced to decline sales within certain industries, to certain customers deemed competitive to the purchaser, or constrained to within certain geographic radii.
c. You can be prohibited from selling a certain product or service to anyone but the original purchaser.
d. You can be forced to accept liability for failures that have nothing to do with your product or service.
e. You can be forced to submit to a dress code for certain customer facing events, and translate this code internally to your own organization.
f. You are often forced to agree to all types of intrusive audits, in some cases unannounced, and can be forced to absorb any lost production costs or accounting support costs in support of these audits- regardless of their outcome.
4.) But perhaps most egregiously, it is now increasingly common to submit to mandatory electronic form of payment, wherein you provide your confidential banking account information, and payment is only made, and cannot be made any other way, by means of a wire transfer directly into your private business account. Reading of the small print in the contract yields an almost universal caveat, the payer can reverse any payment immediately and electronically, directly from your account, without notice and without permission; further, if there is any payment dispute, fines or penalties, or the occurrence of any perceived damages and liability that can result in charge backs to you, the supplier, these can be extracted without notice and without permission.
If you read the fine print on any recent home mortgage documentation you will see similar examples of this from our friends the Finance Capitalists, and if you are foolish enough to consider borrowing money for a business venture from a Finance Capitalist, you will get a first class education in exploitation via contract documents.
The sum total of all this, under the mantle of privatization, is the absolute and unchallenged control by the large scale Capitalist of both consumer and small business based endeavor, seeking to capitalize any surplus value that is achieved though small business or consumer debt onset, and to reduce this to rent-seeking in a fashion that would put Mussolini to shame.
Turns out the devil you don’t know is far worse than the devil you do know.