The 2018-19 Federal Budget predicted future wage rises of higher than 3%, however merely a week after it was released ABS data detailed that annual wage rises for the March quarter were only 2.1% and showed no sign of improvement (Jericho 2018). Not only does this take the shine off the Government’s panglossian numbers but it further highlights a fracture in capitalism in Australia. Low wage growth is starting to unpick the social order, contributing to rising insecurity and distress about current and future living standards (distress which is manifesting in, or at least is being channelled, by the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign), worries about the stability of the financial system and trepidations about the impacts on consumption. It is also creating demand for an explanation of what is going on. For an ideological mainstream that struggles to see the origin of problems within capitalism one of the answers that has been provided is… smashed avocado breakfasts (and/or brunches)! The problem is that people, especially young people, are spending wrong not that they aren’t earning enough. Here I want to show that not only is this a stupid idea, but it is a stupid idea that we can use to actually start to talk about what wages are and what is happening in Australian society.
Mainstream political debate in Australia is often banal, stupid and cruel. You can pick your favourite examples. Contenders for me would include members of the Government waving coal around in Parliament, or Maurice Newman, a former Chairperson of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, former Chair of the Board of the Australian Stock Exchange, former Chancellor of Macquarie University and a former member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, writing in The Australianthe following on Australia ratifying the Paris Climate Accord: ‘Such meek surrender brings the Marxist dream of one-world government another step closer. Its realisation is assisted by the existence of other supranational groups such as the European Commission , the International Monetary Fund (a Keynesian brainchild), the World Bank and the G20’(2017, 14). This B-grade conspiracy dross was written by someone who is at the very top of the Australian elite and published in Australia’s only national broadsheet (a paper that sees itself as the flag-bearer for the mainstream Right). But when it comes to the question of wages nothing seems so stupid as the claim that young people can’t afford houses due to spending too much money on smashed avocado breakfasts. This claim was made forcefully by property developer Tim Gurner and more sheepishly by demographer and pundit Bernard Salt(Levin 2017, Salt 2016). It has been rightly greeted with snorts of derision. It is a truly stupid line of reasoning. However, like a lot of stupidities it can teach us something about the condition we are in and give us an insight into how wages are determined.
The smashed avo argument runs something like this: there is no actual structural problem between the level of wage growth and the rising cost of houses. Rather young people (the dreaded Millennials) are simply spending their money incorrectly and then refusing to deal with the consequences. Rather than saving for a deposit, they are wasting money on expensive breakfasts, coffee, holidays and the like – i.e. lifestyle purchases. As such, they have only themselves to blame and their inability to purchase a house (the pre-eminent symbol of the good life) would be solved if only they re-orientated their spending. One suspects that for a property speculator like Gurner, the point of this argument is to dampen down any legislative moves that might be made to try to address rising house prices (not that I think these would actually work) and perhaps threaten the value of his investments.
It’s an old argument. One that says that differences in wealth and poverty don’t arise from structural dynamics in the capitalist mode of production, but rather the poor choices of the poor. This is economics as a moral discourse – locate problems in the terrain of people’s behaviour, in particular their appetite for pleasures and their refusal to put off for tomorrow. We can find this sentiment in Smith’s version of the Ants and the Grasshopper where he argues that ‘Capitals are increased by parsimony, and are diminished by prodigality and misconduct’(1999, 437). Marx lampooned how such theories are used to explain the division of people into classes and commented that ‘Such insipid childishness is everyday preached to us in the defence of property’(1990, 873-74).
And as a moral discourse, even a not very effective one, it is about changing people. Changing their behaviours and changing their expectations. Bernard Salt’s response to the decline in secure employment is to desire a change in how people view change, to make them supple and flexible to the gyrations of capital: ‘creating a workforce that is comfortable with change, that’s really what we want’ (Barnes 2018).
In my last postI rejected the idea that productivity simply determines the level of wages. In the future I will further take up the explanation about how wages are determined by the class struggle in the specific context of capitalist accumulation in Australia (arguing that class struggle and capital accumulation are actually the same thing.) But what arewages? The dominant idea that productivity determines wages is essentially saying that wages are merely the return that a certain factor of production gets for its efforts in the processes of production. By rejecting this explanation for what drives wages, we also have implicitly rejected the idea of what wages are.
The dominant understanding of what wages are is nestled within a broader understanding of what the economy is. Painting with a broad brush we can say our current orthodoxy understands the economy as a natural or ahistorical formation. The purported wisdom of economics is to understand the economy in the same way a scientist would understand physics or biology so human societies can make decisions that best accord to with the nature of an unchangeable reality. The economy can be understood on a micro level as the agglomeration of individuals making rational choices about preferences for work and consumption and on a macro level as the total level of output determined by the combined extra-economic factors of population size, participation in the labour-market and technological productivity. Debates within this framework focus on what if any role the state may play, if markets are infallible or if they can fail, and if the broad drivers of growth can or can’t be impacted by policy choices. It is an approach that understands economic activity as primarily being about material wealth: how much is created, who gets it and what kinds are made.
This understanding of the economy has little to do with the reality of actually existing capitalism. At the heart of world capitalism is the capitalist mode of production. This is a historically specific formation that is driven by both its specific dynamics and contains within it struggles and antagonisms that create the possibility for its overcoming. It is comprised of individual firms which are driven by the endless requirement to accumulate more and more capital. To take a sum of money, create a profit, reinvest it and grow – endless. ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!’(Marx 1990, 742).
What capital accumulates is more capital. Individual firms can make profits in lots of different ways but the accumulation of capital on the level of the system is premised on the exploitation of labour. It is only through the employment of workers in production that surplus-value can be generated, and this then becomes profit. What makes money able to function as capital is that there lives a set of people who have nothing to sell but their ability to work. Capitalism is thus premised on these people existing. It reproduces their existence as well as capital’s.
If we consider not the start of the production process but its result, the successful capitalist has appropriated surplus-value from the workers, realised it in exchange and can now employ this value in the next cycle of the production process; whereas the worker, being paid for her labour-power only, leaves the production process only with a wage to cover the cost of her reproduction for the next cycle of production. Both parties thus return, at the end of the process of production, to the structural locations from which they entered it.(Endnotes 2010, 7)
Capital is a social relationship between people. What is accumulated is this social relationship, the capital-relation: capital and those that own capital on one side (a relatively decreasing number who hold an increasing amount of capital) and those who have nothing but their capacity to work to sell on the other (growing both in absolute number and relatively too). ‘The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer’(Marx 1990, 724).
Whilst there is no form of overt coordination there is, allowing for variation, a trajectory to the capitalist mode of production. Generally speaking, capital grows in size and has a tendency to increase the proportion of investment in technology (means of production) in relation to labour and also had a tendency towards crisis. This crisis is one where the volume of products created cannot be sold as a sufficient level to realise satisfactory profit (overaccumulation) whilst the tendency to increase technology to labour leads to a reduction in the rate of profit itself. This manifests both in increasing amounts of capital attempting to flee from production into financial speculation and periodic meltdowns that work to reset capitalism and re-launch accumulation again on a more concentrated scale.
For workers this plays out in two complex ways. The growth of capitalism means the increasing proletarianisation of humanity: that is the conversion of more of us into those who have nothing but their capacity to work to sell. This happens through the enclosure of commons (non-capitalist, non-commodified forms of reproduction and existence) and the increasing commodification of wealth (hence the need for money). Growth in the pool of workers is a prerequisite for capital to grow. Yet on the other hand, the tendency for capitalism in conditions of competition and regulated by the law of value to increase productivity and the proportion of investment in the means of production visa vie workers, leads to it expelling workers from employment. ‘… the demand for labour, although it grows absolutely, decreases relatively, to the same extent as capitalism develops’ (Marx 1969b, 492). The explosion of workers from production is increased by the rise in unemployed in times of crisis. Capitalism is constantly increasing and swelling the ranks of the global working class whilst simultaneously casting them out. ‘Just as capital on one side creates surplus labour, surplus labour is at the same time equally the presupposition of the existence of capital’(Marx 1993, 398). This has led in our current moment to the phenomenon of, on one side, surplus capital gorging in financial markets (the prices of which are propped up by central banks pouring money into these markets) and on the other, surplus labour: those with nothing but their labour-power to sell with no buyers.
To ask what wages are is to ask how in these broader movements of the capitalist mode of production the working class is reproduced as actual living humans. Marx argues that workers sell their labour-power (i.e. their ability to work) just like any other commodity owner sells their commodities. ‘We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind’(Marx 1990, 270). And whilst the prices of commodities fluctuate up and down with supply and demand, the gravitational average of each type of commodity is its value. This gets quite complex in that value denotes not just the costs of the inputs but also the surplus-value generated from the exploitation or labour. This then is augmented by Marx in Vol III of Capital(1991)where he factors in the competition between capitalist firms, the flows of surplus-value across capitalist society and the movement of capital from industry to industry, all which create a tendency towards the averaging of profit rates. This means that, in practice, prices oscillate around the price of production: the average cost price of producing a commodity plus the average rate of profit within the context of a certain level of productivity and need. On one level wages are just the costs of another input and are determined in broadly the same way – not by their use but by the costs of their reproduction.
The use value of a thing does not concern its seller as such, but only its buyer. The property of saltpetre, that it can be used to make gunpowder, does not determine the price of saltpetre; rather, this price is determined by the cost of the production of saltpetre, by the amount of labour objectified in it. The value of use values which enter circulation as prices is not the product of circulation, although it realises itself only in circulation; rather it is presupposed to it, and is realized only through exchange for money. Similarly, the labour which the worker sells as a use value to capital is , for the worker, his exchange value, which he wants to realize, but which is already determined prior to this act of exchange and presupposed to it as a condition, and is determined like the value of every other commodity by supply and demand; or, in general which is our only concern here, by the cost of production, the amount of objectified labour, by means of which the labouring capacity of the worker has been produced and which he therefore obtains for it, as its equivalent. (Marx 1993, 306)
Yet wages do differ from the price of other commodities because we are not replicants: we aren’t produced by capitalist firms for sale. Marx argues that wages are the value of reproducing the worker themselves as a living, social being. Labour-power doesn’t exist independently of our bodies but rather is the potential that lives in the body. In relation to the worker, labour-power ‘does not exist apart from him at all, thus exists not really, but only in potentiality, as his capacity’(Marx 1993, 267). It is ‘pure potential’ (Virno 2004, 81). As such labour-power can only be reproduced by reproducing the body that contains this potential – in all its richness.
What is the cost of reproducing a human being? In Capital, Marx provides the following answer: the costs of the bundle of commodities necessary to reproduce the worker on a daily basis, to achieve a certain level of competency and training, and support a form of family life that will allow another generation of workers to be created. ‘Therefore the labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner’(1990, 274).
Marx is then describing a bundle of commodities that is necessary given a certain expectation of the what is a necessity for life. This bundle of commodities practically involves the intersection between the amount of money wages workers get paid, the prices of the commodities themselves and in a world capitalist system, the value of the currency they are paid in and that which prices are denominated in.
The determination of the value of labour-power, as a commodity, is of vital importance. This value is equal to the labour-time required to produce the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of labour power, or to the prices of the means of subsistence necessary for the existence of the worker as a worker. It is only on this basis that the differences arises between the valueof labour-power and the value which that labour-power creates – a difference which exists with no other commodity, since there is no other commodity whose use-value, and therefore also the use of it, can increase its exchange-value or the exchange-values resulting from it. (Marx 1969a, 45)
Wages are the cost of the reproduction of the worker. What the worker sells is her creative abilities: ‘he sells labour only in so far as it objectifies a definite amount of labour, hence in so far as its equivalent is already measured, given; capital buys it as living labour, as the general productive force of wealth; activity which increases wealth’ (Marx 1993, 309).
What then do these bundles of commodities consist of? What is necessary to reproduce life? Marx identified that the commodities necessary to reproduce the worker on a daily-level and on the level of a life time are socially and historically determined. And after all Marx and Engels tell us that history is a series of ‘class struggles’(1993, 67). As Althusser comments:
Remember that this quantity of value (wages) necessary for the reproduction of labour power is determined not by the needs of a ‘biological Guaranteed Minimum Wage (Salaire Minimum Interprofessional Garanti) alone, but by the needs of a historical minimum (Marx noted that English workers need beer while French proletarians need wine)[i]– i.e. an historically variable minimum.
I should also like to point out that this minimum is doubly historical in that it is not defined by the historical needs of the working class ‘recognized’ by the capitalist class, but by the historical needs imposed by the proletarian class struggles ( a double class struggle: against the lengthening of the working day and the against the reduction of wages)(2008, 5).
This is both a very rich starting point and profoundly inadequate. Marx’s exposition of the exploitation of labour and the creation of surplus-value in Vol 1 ‘ignores the conditions of the extraction of surplus value (conditions of labour) and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power’(Althusser 1978, 219). It ignores too much of what is necessary in reproducing life. To begin, it ignores the unpaid reproductive labour in home – a blind spot critiqued by various feminisms (Federici 2012). It also ignores the vast amount of activity carried out by the state to ensure the broader reproduction of workers as workers. This includes the necessity of ideology – that is producing and instilling in us a certain set of ideas, our shaping into certain kinds of people, that will ensure we go to work and actually work (Althusser 2008). Paolo Virno argues that the concept of biopower only makes sense by grasping the importance of labour-power. Biopower, a concept from Foucault, identifies how life both on an individual level and on the level of society becomes on object of management (Foucault 2003, 253).
The governance of life runs from the containment of impulses to the most boundless licence, from pedantic forbidding to the heights of tolerance, from ghettos for the poor to Keynesian high salaries, from the maximum security prison to the welfare state. That said, the crucial question remains: why is life as such taken care of, governed? The answer is straightforward: because it serves as the substratum for the faculty, labour-power, which has the autonomous significance of a use-value. What is at issue here is not the productivity of actual labour, but the exchangeability of the potential to labour itself (Virno 2015, 166).
More broadly, the reproduction of the worker sits nestled in the practices of the reproduction of the social formation. This includes the reproduction of the worker as part of the reproduction of productive forces and also involves the reproduction of the existing relations of production (Althusser 2008, 2). These become increasingly hard to untangle. Perhaps they are impossible to untangle. Can we distinguish between the practice necessary to train a person to work and be able to work, from the other activities that normalise them as a general member of society? The apparatuses of the law and the police work to enforce property rights and social stability – but doesn’t this also cement the general dynamics that compel us to go to work every day, that is, the entire edifice of private property? I once heard John Holloway remark that without the security guard with a gun outside the supermarket there is no supermarket. That is, there is no commodification and no operation of value. If we can say that the exploitation of the worker at the point of production is at the heart of capitalist society it is probably equally true that the entire edifice of power and control that is capitalist society is necessary for this exploitation to take place. ‘Exploitation is politically produced as a function of capitalist power from which descends a social hierarchy, that is, a system of matrixes and limits adequate to the reproduction of the system’ (Negri 1992, 74).[ii]
This dense set of problems has been increasingly theorised under the label of social reproduction (Katsarova 2015). It is a rich terrain. What is important to grasp is that if we look at all the work that is necessary to reproduce workers as workers, there is no hard and fast division between who does what and where.Endnoteshave developed a scheme that typifies this as the process of reproduction as being made up of two separate, but interlocking spheres: that of the directly market-mediated sphere and the indirectly market-mediated sphere.
The production and reproduction of labour-power necessitates a whole set of activities; some of them are performed in directly market-mediated or DMM sphere (those that are bought as commodities; either as product or service), while others take place in the sphere which is not directly mediated by the market – the IMM sphere. The difference between these activities does not lie in their concrete characteristics. Each of these concrete activities – cooking, looking after children, washing/mending clothes – can sometimes produce value and sometimes not, depending on the “sphere” rather than the actual place, in which it occurs. (Endnotes 2013, 63).
If the work is carried out unpaid in the home, as a commodified service on the market, provided by the state (paid for by taxation or user pays) or outside or on the edge of the capitalist mode of production is a question of historical struggles. So too is the rate, remuneration, intensity and organisation or this work. These struggles matter. When the Campbell Newman LNP government defunded the Barrett Adolescent Psychiatric Centre, a specialist institution for young people with mental health issues, arguing they could be treated in the community, it contributed to the deaths of 3 young people (McLeish and McKinnon 2014). There is a difference between being a five-year-old and being taught a play-based curriculum and being taught one based around standardised testing: even if both ultimately aim to do the same thing and produce the child as a future worker and citizen.
In practice these spheres are often complexly intertwined. Students at TAFE, for example, receive training in the skills, attitudes and behaviour necessary for employment in specific fields. The TAFEs are state-owned, students either pay up front or take a loan from the government. Many of the activities that keep TAFE running – from cleaning to photocopying – are carried out by for-profit private businesses. Much of the material that is taught may be purchased from private companies and the use of intellectual property generates considerable rents for the property holders. TAFEs may also carry out for-profit activities. Students rely on friends and families for support – especially since the cohort tends to be either students who didn’t do well academically at school and/or recent migrants who have English as a second, third, fourth (or more) language. For other examples, take how call centres that proved the welfare services of Centrelink and the NDIA are, or will be, contracted out to the private provider Serco (Foden and Dingwall 2018, Knaus 2018). (Many may be relying on support in the form of welfare and programs from NGOs) In such cases we can see that the directly and indirectly market-mediated spheres overlap and inhabit each other.
The next complication is that it is increasingly important to recognise how the process of capital accumulation extends beyond the work-place proper. The most obvious starting point is the circulation of commodities and money. But also, more and more attention has been given to both how capital externalises work from the work-place and also how the accumulation of value reaches across society. The feminist argument is that unwaged labour is necessary for waged-labour and thus is an a prorinecessary condition for capital accumulation to take place (Fortunati 1995). The argument made by the post-workerists (Negri, Virno, Bifo, Marazzi, etc.) is different. One element of their argument is that the social knowledge produced across society becomes directly applied in the work-place proper, the second element is that much of life outside of work becomes a direct site of value extraction. The student who submits their essay through a plagiarism checker also contributes to the stock of materials which all other essays are checked against. Thus, they are working, unpaid, unwaged, building the very service that their educational institution pays for. ‘…capitalist colonization of the circulation sphere has been nonstop, to the point of transforming the consumer into a veritable producer of economic value. Coproduction, where the individual is the coproducer of what he consumes…’(Marazzi 2011, 50).
Added to this is that right now in Australia wages do notcover the costs of reproduction. Not only in the sense that much of the labour of reproduction is outside of the wage relation, but the bundle of commodities we purchase exceeds our wages and instead is reliant on debt. ‘The ratio of total household debt to income has increased by almost 30 percentage points over the past five years to almost 190 per cent, after having been broadly unchanged for close to a decade’ (Reserve Bank of Australia 2018, 20). Attendance in higher education is also reliant on debt, retirement reliant on superannuation and health care is funded by insurance.
Wages only cover a partial cost of the bundle of commodities and forms of work that are necessary to reproduce labourers today and long-term. There is considerable concern in the circles of capitalist thinkers that rising debt and low wages growth pose a threat to capital accumulation. The first by creating the risk of debt defaults the second by lowering the growth of aggregate effective demand.
What does this have to do with smashed avos? As Marx says, the actual bundle of commodities is historically determined. It is a not a fixed quantity. What is so interesting, and a puzzle for us anticapitalists, is the way that during the late neo-liberal period of capitalism and into the mining boom this bundle of commodities grew in Australia despite class struggle declining. Indeed, the secret at the heart of social stability, a form of unofficial deal between capital and labour, was whilst the share of income going to capital grew wages also grew, albeit unequally, and more people entered the workforce. So too the costs of commodities dropped as more and more commodities were made more cheaply overseas and workers had increased access to credit. Though its necessary to also taken into account how the range of costs also expanded – as costs for social reproduction such as schooling, health care etc. expanded. And as we shall see below there has also been an increase in consumption of services – from getting your nails done to holidays. Thus, there was a very real increase in wealth workers had access to. The bundle of goods considered to be historically necessary to reproduce the working class grew even as labour’s share of income sunk (see Notes for an understanding of class deals be they social democratic or otherwise). This coincided with the transformation in the composition of the working class. Increasingly the household had to rely on more than one wage to survive and labour’s share declined in relationship to both perhaps evidence that exploitation increased. Yet the access to wealth of each member in that household rose.
(Bishop and Cassidy 2017, 14)
Whilst mine jobs really sucked up the lion’s share of increases, the shortage of labour also caused wage growth to spread across the workforce.
(Bishop and Cassidy 2017, 18)
Between 2011 and 2013 my own writing (the work that really started the With Sober Sensesproject) looked at how the then ALP government were increasingly worried about how declining unemployment in the context of the mining boom was accentuating wage rises. The dwindling supply of labour and the related drop in competition between workers for jobs becomes a problem for capital. The government was particular concerned about its impact on the non-mining sectors whose profits were lagging (leading me to theorise that in Australia there were serious hurdles to the formation of an average rate of profit) and the apprehension that the window of the boom has closing. The response of the government was an increasingly disciplinarian welfare regime that aimed to squeeze more labour-power out of sections of the population previously seen as prereferral to or on the borders of the labour market such as those on disabilities and single parents. This is also the genesis of the spread of the Basics Card from the NT to the rest of the country. (See The Federal Budget, Changes to Welfare and The Labour-Crisisand A New Start? Welfare Changes And the Labour-Power Shortage)
What is always worth considering – and it’s deeply troubling – is why the government didn’t do what was the most obvious solution to a shortage of labour: increase immigration. Laborism has always preferred to keep up the price of labour by limiting immigration rather than fight capital for an increased share: hence the long-term support for the White Australia Policy. This continues as part of the historical compact of Australian society. For friends and comrades this present a constant challenge as the dominant Laborist forces such as the trade unions and the popular ideology of Laborism regularly tries to defend the conditions of the masses via an opposition to immigration.
This increase in wealth manifested in a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of consumables. What Australians eat and wear, the number of consumables they own, what they watch and read, where they holiday, is radically different from even 20 years ago. Whilst often mocked via increasingly humourless jabs at ‘Hipsters’ or ‘Cashed-up Bogans’, what we are talking about is a profound transformation in how workers in Australia live and what they expect as the minimum for a decent life. Look at how Australian’s drink coffee compared to 20 years ago. In Woden I recently had a coffee (soy flat white – single origin bean) that was of a quality that would have been hard to find outside of a few inner-city suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne when I started drinking coffee. At the Darra drive-through ‘Bottle-o’ I can get multiple different craft beers – something that would have been a surreal joke 10 years ago. In this sense what is considered necessary for life in Australia has profoundly changed. Smashed avo symbolises not just the change in tastes in food that is consumed, but where we expect to consume: out. Going out regularly for all meals, and for quality food, a life with a large slice of popular luxury, is very new.
There is crucial ideological and cultural content to this rise in wealth. Increasingly the commodities themselves are seen as embodying a kind of lifestyle or way of being. Thus, it is not simply that the volume or the quality of the commodities we consume have increased but also their importance as signifiers of the kind of person we are. There is of course substantial theorisation of this transformation. My own hypothesis is that since this rise in wealth coincided roughly with the defeat of the movement against the war in Iraq, many of the utopian desires of people in Australia have been displaced from the collective to the personal, buttressed by the growth in wealth.
Of course, not everyone participates in this. The growth in incomes has been profoundly unequal – not just between capital and labour, but amongst the working class too. This inequality would, I assume, match on to the racist stratifications of Australian society. So too we must consider the difference between Australian workers (as in in citizens of Australia) and workers in Australia. For example: ‘A landmark study has found wage theft is endemic across Australia with a quarter of international students and a third of backpackers earning $12 or less per hour, around half the legal minimum wage.’(Patty 2017). Those who have been left out of this growth have been profoundly left behind. Those who are without a wage and thus have access to only the most exploitative forms of credit are in dire straits. Research has shown that welfare payments are in fact not enough to meet a minimum standard of healthy living in Australian society (Coady 2017).
The content of this deal has been an indigestible seed caught in the throat of the Left. Neoliberalism is meant to mean poverty – instead it meant in Australia the increase in wealth. In the context of the looming ecological catastrophe, it became commonplace for many friends and comrades to understand that mass consumption and the popular desire for wealth was the problem. The ability of the Howard government in the first decade of the 21stCentury to speak to these changes in wealth and changes in work through an ideology of aspirationalism largely bamboozled us. The potential of a radical critique existed in shifting our attention from opposition to capitalist poverty to opposition to capitalist wealth. Not opposition to wealth in the sense of opposing people having things, even lots of things, but rather how the accumulation of wealth in capitalism meant the accumulation of capitalist social relations and the increasing loss of our autonomy and time. The increased commodification of the world means the increasing magnitude of the force that rises up against us. For the worker ( here assumed by Marx as male) the more he works the more he experiences what he creates as a ‘power independent of himself, which moreover rules over him, rules over him through his own actions’(1993, 453).
In a rather slap-dash workers enquiry carried out in 2013[iii], the prominent theme that participants raised was the sense of a lack of control over their lives and a loss of time – not the level of wages. Something of course the culture industry already knew as it sold us the endless fantasies of self-employment, home improvement, garden and gourmet cooking at home: a life of meaningful work in which each of us would be in control of our own destinies and realise our talents and purpose. And I think something that many proletarians took up as individuals using the growth in wages and credit to try to fuel their own escape plans out of work and drudgery…
All this is receding before us now. Roughly coinciding with the end of the construction phase of the mining boom (say 2013), wages started to stagnate. Jobs growth has been located in mainly services and health work, often performed by women, that have lower levels of pay. Hence the high wage, high work, high credit compact has started to come undone. Capital accumulation in Australia has increasingly relied on consumer spending and real estate investment. Household debt has become more and more important to maintaining growth just as wages growth has tanked. This is arguably an untenable situation and thus, the problems of growth, debt and wages in on the table.
And this is why the humble smashed avo has become so important. The smashed avo has become symbolic of a standard of living: the bundle of commodities that form the historically necessary level for the reproduction of a large swathe of the working class in the last 10 or 20 years, and which increasingly seems untenable in the future. Moralising about the spending choices of the young is thus part of a disciplinary manoeuvre aimed at increasing the acceptance for a lower standard of living: whether that lowering of standards of living happens through the apparently neutral processes of the capitalist mode of production, or from direct attacks from capitalists. Everyone is being told to set their aspirations lower. Which is exactly why we shouldn’t. We should be avatars of popular luxury and demand for all the lives of enjoyment and dignity which we could have if the means of production were made common. Against every sullen voice saying ‘less’, our reply should be ‘more!’ We demand everything for everybody… including smashed avocado breakfasts and/or brunches.
Edited and improved by Alison Pennington. All idiocies and deficiencies are my responsibility.
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[i]I cannot find where Marx does actually say this.
[ii]Even though Negri is wrong about value this is a good point(Eden 2014)
[iii]This was organised by the May Day Group and took the form of series of ‘world-café’ structured conversations.