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The profit system: every day another disaster

Right now 33 Chilean miners are entombed 2,300 feet below the earth in 540-square-foot cavern. At 85 degrees Fahrenheit, this cavern is undoubtedly the closest thing to the Christian Hell a person will ever experience. Unfortunately, it may take as long as four months to rescue the men.

Depending on your capacity to endure small, heated spaces for months at a time, you may judge these miners are either luckier or worse-off than many other miners, since this is just one of a string of often-deadly accidents to strike the mining sector in the last few years. Even in the U.S., where mining is a relatively safe occupation, and where mining is safer than elsewhere, a number of heart-wrenching disasters have killed dozens of miners in the last five years:

All of these mine "accidents" happened in the United States. In the developing world, where more brazen exploitation is the norm, rather deadlier mining accidents are far more common. Thousands of Chinese miners die every year.

But whether they happen in West Virginia, Chile, or China, have one thing in common: they were avoidable. In each instance, the inherently dangerous work of mining was made more dangerous by the mine operators' decisions put profit before safety. But this decision isn't only made by mine operators. Across the world, workers in every industry needlessly die on the job. The only difference is that miners die en masse.

Is this forsaking of safety for the sake of profit a result of insatiable greed overriding human decency? Both left and right agree there's no need to look any further for an explanation. For conservatives, it's man's nature to be greedy, even to the point where he'll sacrifice his fellows for his own gain, and nothing can be done about it apart from avoiding greed's deadly consequences by becoming a capitalist yourself. Liberals, on the other hand, merely modify this position and posit that some capitalists are frightfully greedy and that all will be better when more upstanding capitalists are found (the message behind the Anti-BP movement and hokey business school initiatives) or when the greed is reined in by regulation. Left and right, then, are united in viewing the problem as one of choice -- the choice to put profits before safety. Either better choices can or can't be made, but in the end, no matter how fiery the pseudo-radical harangues against greed, the problem is personal, not systemic.

But there's another way to look at it. Instead of fretting about the morality of individual capitalists, which would reveal no clear-cut correlation between personality shortcomings and disregard for workers' safety, we can step back and look at the capitalist system as a whole and consider the role profit plays. On the one hand, the typical capitalist uses a part of his profit unproductively, frittering it away on all manner of frivolities. But if this capitalist wishes to continue to enjoy his unproductive use of profit, an even greater proportion of his total profit must be turned into capital and reinvested into his enterprise. Why? Because the capitalist's competitors have used their profit to invest in newer machinery that lowers their costs of production, enabling them to sell their products more cheaply while still making a profit. Our capitalist must follow suit unless he has no concern for being edged out of the market. Thus, as Marx wrote, do "...the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him." Geoffrey Kay elaborates on this in his book The Economic Theory of the Working Class, where he writes the following:

... it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of competition as a means of reminding individual capitalists of their class duty to exploit labour and amass surplus value at the greatest possible rate. Contrary to the view that it is an expression of innate human nature, competition depersonalises the capitalist qua capitalist and reduces him to an individuated element of social capital. Consider the classic individual capitalist, the entrepreneurial hero of orthodox economics. From a juridical point of view the capital embedded in his firm is private property which he can dispose of as he wishes. In so far as capital is property and the capitalist a property owner, the individual is under no particular social pressure to do one thing or another. Apart from liquidating his assets, in which case he gives up all pretence of being a capitalist, he could, in principle, draw out all the surplus value the enterprise generates and use it exclusively for his private pleasure -- i.e. he could decided to remain a capitalist but one who does not accumulate capital. But it is precisely this choice which competition denies him, except perhaps for a short period of time and in special circumstances. For unless all capitalists agree to a strategy of non-accumulation, any individual capitalist who decides to follow his bent and eschew accumulation would find his profits reduced, as his rivals introduce new methods of production that undercut him on the market. Hence to survive as a capitalist, as opposed to a mere property owner, the individual has no choice but to compete, and there his no way he can do this except by turning substantial parts of his surplus value into new capital -- in a word, by accumulating. Since laissez faire was first celebrated some two hundred years ago by Adam Smith who saw the 'free market' and open competition as an 'invisible hand that leads men to achieve an end that is not part of their intention', competition has acted as an objective constraint upon those property owners whose property is capital. In other words, competition determines the action of capitalists as capitalists, reducing the individual capitalist to a mere personal representative of capital, depersonalising him into the functioning agent of a social relation of production which is none of his making. The fact that this determination -- the negation of personal individuality -- present itself in the opposite guise as a condition of individual freedom, and moreover, makes the accumulation of capital appear the result of choices freely taken by individuals in competition with each other, is yet a further example of the fetishism that pervades capitalist society.

Even if the appropriation of profit for unproductive, hedonistic ends was reduced or even abolished (say by turning factories over to the workers) -- in effect, reducing or abolishing greed as a motive force behind accumulation -- the need to accumulate capital from profits wouldn't be reduced one whit. So long as an enterprise wishes to survive, and so long as a competitive market exists, profit must be continually reinvested in enterprises if they wish to survive.

There are thus two different ways to look at these accidents. The first, despite its seemingly radical denunciations of greed, offers no better explanation for the ubiquity of workplace accidents than to say "businessmen are bad" and no better solution (if any) than to wait for the day when businessmen are good. The second perspective, unafraid to critically examine capitalism as a system, suggests that pious wishes about putting "people before profit," however radical they may sound, only obscure (often intentionally) the truth that under the immutable laws of capitalism, and for even the most saintly capitalist, profit must come before any other consideration, be it safety, the environment, morality, etc. For such a perspective, the only solution to the problem of "profit before people" is to abolish profit entirely, in order to usher in a system of production based on human needs.