While this expendability of human life is, as I discuss below, baked into our society’s DNA, the privilege of the rich and powerful leavened by it has been fiercely upheld when challenged. Poverty, slavery, fetid slum living conditions, colonial violence in the name of white supremacy and “civilization” – all found their defense from the pens and mouths of some of the most grandiloquent advocates of liberal rights.5Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History offers extensive discussion of this. Working conditions in the first century of industrial capitalism are discussed in many places, but one powerful indictment can be found in Marx, Capitalv. 1, chapter 10 especially. For quotes on arguments that poverty is a necessary condition to enforce labor market discipline, see M. Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order. Efforts to gain freedom from bondage or colonial rule, and to improve working and living conditions – to assert, in other words, a basic humanity in the face of the physically- and psychically-destroying effects of capitalist rule – were routinely met with state-sanctioned brutality. Ruling class order was not to be defied.
Capital and the Value of Life
As a defining thread of capitalism’s history, such cruelties are not coincidental but constitutive of the system.
The ruling class does not care about our lives as such. Their general predisposition is a calculated indifference to human well-being and to life itself, and that indifference is enacted upon some lives more than others. They are animated by a ruthless rationality, not just that some lives are more important than others, but that something – capital – is more important than most peoples’ lives. It follows that this dynamic is not merely a product of a given politician or business leader’s decision-making, however easy it is for us to call out the ethical degeneracy of a person who consciously makes choices that lead to the suffering of others. Such people certainly deserve to be held accountable. But individual capitalists are, after all, “merely capital personified,” as Marx pointed out. The point Marx was making was that the decisions of individual capitalists are framed by the survival-of-the-fittest world of market imperatives they inhabit (and in turn reproduce with their decisions) in which profit, not human need, rules.
The owners of capital are bound up within a structural logic, the logic of capital, to which they must abide and as individuals cannot escape (short of committing class suicide). The capitalist who cannot compete with their rivals in pursuit of market share by, among other things, cutting wages, ignoring worker safety and wellbeing, disregarding environmental concerns, or expropriating indigenous land and resources, perishes, hence the constant compulsion to expand and accumulate more wealth while cutting costs. That individual capitalists seem more than happy to make decisions that ruin lives and ecologies does not obviate the wider systemic logic of the capitalist system that conditions how they function. The ruthless disregard for life is an essential not contingent feature of a society in which everything (human and non-human life included) is subordinated to the death drive of the profit motive.
If productive wealth in capitalist societies (that is, capital) is monopolized by a small fraction of the population, most people – dispossessed of direct access to the means of life – in turn have but one means to survive: to “enter the market” and sell the only commodity they possess, their potential or capacity to labor, what Marx called labor power. Most people today simply cannot survive outside of market relations. With the purchase of labor power6The price of labor power, that is workers’ wages, is shaped by the costs of reproducing workers and their families (including food, shelter, education, etc.), which itself is framed by the struggle over living standards between capital and labor: what, for instance, is considered an adequate diet or shelter or form of recreation and cultural or intellectual pursuits? One way capital has historically kept the cost of labor power down, social reproduction theorists remind us, is by imposing a significant share of the burden of its reproduction on the unpaid labor of the family, and in particular of women. , the employer obtains in turn the living labor of the worker, the physical and mental energies she expends at work. As Marx showed in his powerful dissection of capitalism’s “laws of motion,” as bearers of labor power, the potential worth of most people in the eyes of capital lies simply in their ability to set in motion through their living labor the means of production (the technology, tools and raw materials of the workplace), and thus to produce new value.
Without this army of workers who survive on the sale of their labor capacity, and through which bosses access their living labor energies, capitalism cannot exist. No new wealth would be created, and accumulation would stop. “Every child knows a nation which ceases to work … even for a few weeks, would perish,” Marx sardonically notes in response to the economist’s claim that the capitalist is the creator of new wealth. Labor is the “living, form-giving fire”; it “raises the means of production from the dead merely by entering into contact with them, infuses them with life so that they become factors of the labor process, and combines with them to form new products.”7Marx, Grundrisse: 361; Capital vol. 1: 308.