Tuesday, 4 July 2017

James Meek & the true Labour theory of Value

James Meek has a well researched article in the LRB about a Cadbury factory which relocated from England to Poland.

The English workers, thanks to the use of robots, enjoyed quite high pay (as much as £50,000) and received generous redundancy packages (Meek mentions a worker who received £100,000).  The Poles received much less which also meant that expensive robots were not used on the production line. However, as wages in Poland rise, it appears likely that such factories will shift Eastwards to countries poorer yet. Ironically, prior to 2014, the E.U subsidised this export of jobs- a fact which has turned some of the English ex-Cadbury workers into Brexiters. Similarly, in Poland, the Conservative, homophobic, ruling party is attractive to the working class because of its anti EU rhetoric.

Why did English Cadbury workers enjoy high wages and a good standard of living? The answer is that England, over the course of centuries, had developed Naval and Rail technology and so could import raw materials and ship finished products cheaply. Moreover, the Rule of Law was well established- once again because of centuries of investment. This meant Factories could retain a larger proportion of the price to the consumer. Competition between Factories raised wages thus, the maker of the chocolate gained proportionately more than its transporter or distributor. 

By contrast, historically low wage parts of Poland were notably less favoured in all the above respects.

England lost its inherited 'acquired' advantages in manufacturing but developed others connected to Finance, Education, Culture & so on. The working class could still find some high real wage niches but, increasingly, not in big factories where, in any case, migrants might work harder for less money. 

Meek reports an ex Cadbury worker as saying ' ‘We were just the keepers of those jobs. We needed to hand them down to our children and our children’s children.’ This makes sense. If there are to be property rights in jobs, they should be heritable. However, the law permits the hiring of migrants or others genealogically unconnected to current workers. Understanding this, such workers prefer to accept a fair redundancy package and let the matter drop. Even in Poland, more and more of the production line jobs are being taken by Ukrainian contract workers. Thus, we ought not to expect a major backlash from working class people as factories move to where costs are lower yet.

Meek is evidently troubled by an ugly, xenophobic, spirit to be seen in post Brexit Britain and in KaczyƄski's increasingly psychotic Poland. He is trying to explain these unwholesome developments as a response to greedy multinationals destroying well paid manufacturing jobs and replacing them with ill paid and precarious employment. The obvious rejoinder is that National Governments could, under pressure from voters, establish high minimum wages and restore strong property rights in jobs. Why haven't Poland and Britain done so? The answer, obviously, is that these property rights can't be made heritable without running afoul of equal opportunity legislation and the terms of the relevant European treaty. All that would happen, if property rights were ramped up, would be that a generational divide would worsen- grown up sons would either emigrate or remain in idleness under the paternal roof- and that migrants would be sucked in to keep things ticking over. Notably, it was France, not Britain or Poland, where a truly extreme party- the National Front- became a serious contender for power.

Meek concludes his essay by conjuring up the spectre of a Marxian 'under-consumption crisis'

Robots eat something much more expensive than chocolate- viz. technical knowledge of an arcane type. If the children of comfortably off working class parents are so stupid as to believe that they will inherit jobs in the same factories at the same or higher real wage, then they will quite rightly refuse to acquire any such knowledge. They may try to learn the guitar or disco dancing or whatever it is that kids are into nowadays because such knowledge impacts directly on their reproductive success.

As a matter of fact, kids everywhere understand that 'nerds' can make the big bucks and get the hot blonde- like in 'Big Bang Theory'- so they are in fact willing to acquire arcane knowledge and skills. Not everybody can be a rocket scientist or robot designer. But everybody can be alert to the main chance and allocate their own labour better than some guy sitting in a skyscraper back at Corporate HQ. The true Labour theory of value is that labour which values itself stops getting reamed in the pooper. Marxism, as a political force increasingly relevant in our troubled times, is struggling manfully to avert this outcome.

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