Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
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."