The Guardian

The Guardian June 13, 2001


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Surplus value

Capitalists pay their employees less each week than the value the labour 
of those workers has added to the bosses' goods or services. Or, to put it 
another way, employees actually work part of every week "for free". This 
surplus value or unpaid labour was revealed by Marx as the source of 
profit. Employers are always looking for ways of extending hours or 
otherwise increasing the productivity of their workers without any 
commensurate increase in pay. Speed-ups, mechanisation, automation, 
extended hours and assorted other lurks are all used to extract greater 
surplus value from workers.

An employer whose enterprise is now producing twice as many goods with a 
quarter of the workforce that it used to have, is getting eight times the 
productivity from the workers as before. But you can bet he or she is not 
paying them eight times as much! No, the employer is pocketing the 
difference.

And employers are quite blatant about it. In an article in the Sydney 
Morning Herald on the at first sight unrelated topic of hand held 
computers (officially known as mobile wireless computing devices, believe 
it or not) Bill Bennett was particularly frank.

Not that any of the people Bennett interviewed used such a term as "surplus 
value". Dear me no, but Marc Phillips of research outfit APT Strategies did 
observe that "The key [to expanding corporate use of handheld computers] is 
greatly improved productivity".

He explained that companies that equipped their sales teams with pocketable 
computers "will reduce the sales team's downtime". Downtime in this context 
means any time during which they are not actually earning money for the 
boss.

Sales staff, working under constant pressure, have already found mobile 
phones popular, according to Phillips, because they "make better use of 
your time" (at least from the boss's point of view).

No longer need sales reps be "unproductive" while they are travelling from 
one client to the next or while pausing to grab a quick cup of coffee 
between visits to possible customers. Now "you can call people while you 
are walking down the street or waiting for a cup of coffee".

Heaven forbid that you should be "idle" for a few minutes. For today's 
employers, like their predecessors a couple of generations ago, that's 
equivalent to stealing.

Maintaining detailed computerised databases of existing and potential 
customers and enabling them to be accessed by cordless fit-in-the-palm 
computers would once have been called simply "sales" but is now called 
"customer relationship management" (CRM). And I am sure sales staff are 
thrilled to know that "wireless-enabled is even more productive" (than 
mobile phones).

As the Herald article says, "that's important because skilled 
salespeople are now hard to recruit [I wonder why?]. Consequently companies 
need to squeeze every last drop of performance from their existing staff."

So if you see harassed looking chaps using a mobile phone while consulting 
a pocket computer between gulps of coffee in a snack-bar, don't sneer when 
they pocket their flash new electronic gear and rush off down the road in a 
great hurry.

They are not busy company executives. They are probably just salespeople 
engaged in customer relationship management.

And, depending on how many hours they've already worked for they boss that 
week, they may not be getting paid for their time, either.

* * *
Enriching whose lives?
Did you see that crass comment by Remi Krug, Director-General of Krug Champagne? I quote: "A luxury good enriches our lives. "It's like going to the opera. Those three hours, for which you're willing to pay a great deal, are so much more intense than an ordinary three weeks, they heighten your reality." But not, apparently, your understanding or your awareness of the reality of life around you. Of course, going to the opera or the ballet, theatre or music recital enriches our lives. But why should that be the prerogative of those who can afford "to pay a great deal"? In the USSR, I attended various kinds of theatre, from ballet to puppet to folk dance to circus, all equally inexpensive and all equally well attended, by appreciative, informed audiences. Access to art and culture is not a "luxury good", but capitalism seeks to make it so. By limiting access to art and culture, to the products of fine craftsmanship and to the best materials, capitalism seeks to establish and retain privileges for the wealthy ruling class. But things that "enrich our lives" should enrich everybody's life, not just a wealthy few. It's one more thing the people have to set right one of these days. And they will.
* * *
New Age nutters
Those throw-away magazines that are bundled in with your Sunday paper these days like the Sun-Herald's Sunday Life! are usually a waste of paper. But the one on June 3 contained a surprisingly readable feature by Kate Nancarrow on the "Hits and Misses" of the last 50 years of Australian society. Don't get me wrong: it was nothing if not superficial. But that made the digs at Menzies' red-scares, the regret over the disappearance of genuine hamburger joints (replaced by homogenised fast-food chains), the concern over "the rise in jingoistic patriotism" all the more welcome and surprising. And I particularly liked Ms Nancarrow's inclusion of "New Age nutters" in "Things we don't want in the new century". As she says: "Clearly, the proliferation of mystics, healers, counsellors and rebirthers indicates a collective longing for something but the capacity of the boastful egocentric to entice and advise the vulnerable, and then bill them, seems a worrying trend."

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