A woman looks beyond the mad rush to profit.

by Anne Else

    It is usually women who are seen as addicted to romance, the myth of the tall dark handsome stranger who will carry them away to everlasting happiness. Men show devotion to another romance, the social and economic romance of capitalism. They cling loyally to it in the face of all the evidence that it too is a sham.Doris Lessing speaks of the North-West Fringes (for example in her Canopus in Argos series), those predominantly Anglo-Celtic regions which gave birth to capitalism as we know it. But behind that history, and making it possible, stands the savage exploitation of what these fringes called their empires.

The early nineteenth century brought two romantic movements, one in literature, the other in economics. The capitalist socio-economic romance came in four forms, and Marx subscribed to at least the first two.

First, there was the iron romance of industrialism itself, as vast machines began to stamp raw material into new shapes for human use and profit.

Second, there was the blood and guts romance of masculine working class labour, locked into a complex love-hate relationship with coal and steel and the men who owned it, and virtually owned the workers too (as portrayed in the films "Brassed Off" and "The Full Monty"). The romance was strong enough to mask sordid reality. That is why (despite the absence of choice in doing it) the loss of this killing work was so devastating.

Third, there was—and is—the endless romance of consumption. Its premise is that desires for goods are infinite, and that people—particularly women—do and should act to satisfy those desires as fully as they can. Capitalism deliberately set up this romance, just as it did the romance of labour. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s words1, it set out to "create the wants it seeks to satisfy". Charles Kettering2 of General Motors summed up the mission of business as "the organised creation of dissatisfaction".

The Most Enduring Myth

These forms of romance provided the essential underpinning for what has turned out to be the most enduring capitalist myth of all: the intoxicating romance of investment. One of the great appeals of this magic wand was that it appeared to work regardless of birth or title. Money could conjure up more money almost overnight, and just as quickly make it vanish.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, the machines, the mass production and consumption they made possible, and the money they made, all took on a life of their own. Instead of being merely the means to the human end of a better life they became the end itself. But they also contained the seeds of their own destruction.

First to crumble was the romance of industrialism. In New Zealand it never reached full bloom, so we have been spared the rusting hulks and bleak wastelands it left behind elsewhere, and much of the toll it continues to take today3. Hard on its heels went the romance of male labour, as the mines and factories closed. Where did the jobs go? In American cities, inspectors are finding 19th century style sweatshops where immigrant girls as young as twelve work instead of going to school. Over a million and a half immigrant children—some as young as three and four years—work in American fields4. The apparent "fall in unemployment" here in New Zealand is due not to more jobs but to more people leaving the labour market altogether, making them invisible in terms of employment.

That leaves investment. Thanks in part to the global reach of new information technologies, which annihilate time and distance limitations, capitalism reigns supreme in ways not before possible. Incredible riches are being built up, along with equally incredible poverty.

The whole point of this economic activity is to increase the returns on financial capital. This cannot be done fast enough by traditional types of investment, partly because they are too inflexible, long-term and unwieldy. Instead vast sums roam the world seeking the most profitable temporary home.

The drive to privatise pension funds has added hugely to this pool of mobile capital. There is now excess productive capacity in every traditional major industry. Yet share prices are a greater multiple of earnings than ever before. Even so, it is becoming more and more difficult to find investments that return enough, fast enough. Two humanly destructive consequences are the surge in mergers and buy-outs, and the increase in gambling on various forms of "futures", including national currencies.

Another strategy for dealing with the problem of finding lucrative capital havens is to shift investment to forms of production that should be seen as aspects of reproduction; that is, the maintenance and production of human beings. In urban society, everyone must use water, sewage, energy, communications and roads; and everyone needs education, health care and social security of some kind. So it makes perfect sense for capital to transform these into areas for private investment, or at least into parodies of private companies. This is the last frontier for profit; the essentials of life in the 21st century. But there is a catch: if everyone needs these things, as they are turned more and more into free-market commodities, what happens to those who can’t afford to pay?

Capital demands that people produce and consume on its own terms, with the central notion5 that "one can share in the commodities and values of life only if one has successfully marketed one’s own labour." Thus each individual must earn enough from the market to buy everything they need to live, and to support any of their dependents.

But the blunt fact is that capital does not need much labour any more. In 1989 the companies involved in the Business Roundtable represented 77% of New Zealand stock market value, excluding private companies. But they employed only about 11% of all NZ employees. In 1995 the world’s largest 200 corporations recorded sales worth 28% of the world’s total economic activity. But they provided jobs for only 0.75% of the world’s workforce.

Juliet Schor6 makes the point well: "Capitalist systems do not operate to provide employment. Their guiding principle is the pursuit of profitability. If profitability results in high employment, that is a happy coincidence for those who want jobs. If it does not, bottom-line oriented companies will not take it upon themselves to hire those their plans have left behind."

Breaking the Myth

There is no evidence that capitalist production will again conjure up enough jobs, with a good enough spread of wages, to provide anything like what we have come to see as a decent standard of living , let alone put back the social pattern of the "family wage-earner".

But the true believers are unable to let go of this last vestige of the labour romance. The "good job" has become the Holy Grail of our time. As Claus Offe7 puts it, "The more unlikely it becomes that every adult will be able to find and keep a secure, satisfying and well-paying job, the more frantic and aggressive the competition becomes—between generations, sexes, ethnic groups—for this ‘supreme good’."

Unless the romances of productive labour and endless consumption are dispelled, the romance of investment will continue to hold sway. How can we break the spell? There are only two realistic places for Western societies to look: environmentalism and feminism.

It has always been difficult for women to join the ranks of true believers. It is not just that our lives have an awkward way of giving the lie to romance of every kind, particularly the romance of productive labour. Capitalism has never really found a satisfactory place for us. We do not fit the traditional male worker mould, which was based on getting our shadow labour thrown in. Yet we know from experience that we cannot rely either on men or on capital to deliver the so-called "family wage".

Unpaid work represents one of the few genuine challenges to capitalist logic. It makes no sense at all. But so resistant has romance been to reality that capitalism still scarcely admits that unpaid work exists, let alone that it rivals paid work in size and scope; that paid work could not exist without it; and that it endures regardless of what happens to paid work.

Those who do most of the unpaid work are women8. So it is not surprising that women tend to be the heretics in the capitalist belief system. Not all women, of course, any more than all men are committed believers. But women are the largest group who can genuinely envisage a way of life which does not depend on paid market work, but uses the material abundance now possible as a means, not an end in itself.

The U.N. estimates that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all, and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly $40 billion a year. That is a lot of money. But it is just 4 percent of the combined wealth of the world’s richest 225 individuals.

Capitalism today makes no sense. It is only the ideological power of romance, coupled with the functional power of money, that enables the system to survive. Central to that power is most men’s inability to imagine what on earth they would ever find to do in a world not centred on paid work and production.

As well as the necessities of life, and a share of its luxuries, there must be meaningful activity and a sense of belonging. There is no shortage of any of these goods. There is only a shortage of jobs, along with a glut of production for profit. The sooner we reject the fantasy that market jobs are the answer and that untrammeled private investment will somehow create them, the sooner we may be able to start building a much more down-to-earth, equitable, sustainable way of life.

(References for this article are available from New Renaissance upon request.)

Anne Else lives in Wellington, New Zealand, and writes and speaks on social and economic issues from a feminist perspective. Her book, False Economy, dealt with the increasing clash between paid and unpaid work. Her latest book, A Super Future, with economist Susan St. John, demystifies the myths and realities of the NZ pension system.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 9, No. 1, issue 27