Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Production and Realization

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[S1 E18] Production and Realization

Prof. Harvey answers the question of production and realization as it relates to today's economy and job market and the contemporary composition of the working class.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work. 

My last podcast, I talked about the question of anti-capitalist struggle as it exists at the point of production, as it exists at the point of realization in the market, and as it exists at the point of social reproduction, which is the social reproduction of labor power but also the social reproduction of ways of life and the like. What I would like to do in this session is to talk a little 

bit more about the question of production and realization and try to find a little bit of a way to put much of this together. The classic way of thinking about this in Marxist [terms] is to think of the factory. The factory is the site of collective labor, which is set up and organized and dominated by capital and within which value is produced and reproduced and surplus value is appropriated. So, this has been the centerpiece of a lot of thinking. But, what happens when factories disappear. We've been through, in the advanced capitalist countries like the United States and Europe, a period of deindustrialization in which the factory has become less and less significant. So, this then poses interesting question for us right now: where is the working class and who constitutes the working class? 

I might like to do something, which is a little bit heterodox: maybe we should take out the term class for the moment and just say working people. The reason I do that is because working-class usually has a connotation of a certain kind of labor situation, whereas working people broadens the question and allows us to reconstitute, at the end of the day, a different idea of who the working class is and what the working class might do. What they might do and what their powers might be. One of the things that has happened through deindustrialization has been the abolition of a lot of blue-collar jobs. The abolition of blue-collar jobs in the United States and Britain, the two cases I know best, and in both instances a lot of the abolition of the jobs had to do with technological change. The estimates are that about 60% of the job losses were due to technological change over the last 30 or 40 years. The remainder has mainly been due to offshoring, that is, taking the low-wage jobs and going to China or Mexico or wherever. But, with the technological change what we see is the reduction of labor forces from very large conglomerates. For instance, when I went to Baltimore in 1969 there was a very large steel works employing over 30,000 people. By the time you get to 1990, it’s producing the same amount of steel but only 5,000 people are employed. By the time you get into the 2000s, it's basically either closed down or it gets opened up again with a thousand people. The Steel Workers Union was a very powerful institution in the city when I first knew it in 1969. But now, of course, it's mainly dealing with retired people and pensions and things that and really has very little presence in Baltimore city politics anymore. 

So, with that kind of thing, you kind of say the working class has disappeared. But, when you think about it you say well, maybe it hasn't disappeared. It's just not making the same things anymore and it's not caught up in the same activities. For example, why would we say that making automobiles or making steel is a working-class occupation whereas, say, making hamburgers is not? In fact, if you look at the employment data, of course, there’s been a massive increase in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King and all the rest, a massive increase in employment in those areas and those areas are productive of labor. It's just they're producing food and prepared food rather than producing steel and automobiles. If you look at it, you would say well, actually this, then, is one of the ways in which the new working class is being thought of. And in recent times, what we've seen is the fast food workers have started to organize and we've started to see what Marx would call a class in itself forming around the spread of those kinds of employment categories. It's now beginning to become a class for itself. I starts to go after McDonald's and say they have to have a minimum wage of [$]15 or living wage, more than that. So, there's a lot of agitation going on in something like fast food production. 

But, you're not only dealing with fast food production. You're dealing with all the small restaurant owners and all the rest of it. I think of New York City not as a city, which is parasitical in the sense that it actually lives off the value production, which is created in large industrial areas elsewhere, but where actually a great deal of value is created because when you take some of these employment such as restaurant workers and the like you see an enormous increase in the numbers and an increase in value output and the like. Of course, this is also a very labor-intensive area and it will eventually fall before artificial intelligence and the like. But, it's still, at this point in time, a very significant center of employment, which means that whereas forty years a big source of employment were the big automobile industries and steel industry, so it was General Motors and Ford and the like, now the biggest employers are [the] Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and the McDonald's franchise. So this is, if you like, one of the new working classes. But, of course, it's hard to organize. A lot of the way labor is temporary. People work there for a while and leave. It's a very difficult area. But, we see now some possibilities of organization, particularly using social media and the like. So, there's some possibilities there. 

But, another thing occurred to me the other day, which I thought was actually really very interesting. I was just, sort of, watching out of the window of the airplane as I was leaving Dallas Airport and I look out and I see this workforce and I suddenly think about all of those people who are working at the airport. Now, in Marx’s category, transportation is also value producing and so everybody who's involved in the transport industry and moving people from one part of the world to the other is, in fact, part of a productive working class given Marxist categories. But then you look at the kind of labor that's involved. There all those people who are helping push the plane out. There are all those people who are helping with getting the baggage and baggage claim. There are all those people inside of the airport. You look at it and you look at the structure of the workforce there, it is not well paid and yet it has a very singular power. When you look and say what's the constitution of that workforce? What struck me, and I’ve thought about this at every airport I've been to ever since, is to take a good hard look at who it is [that] is doing most of the work that makes airports actually function. There is a large number of people of color, African Americans in particular, who are involved. A lot of Hispanics and some white recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia and the like and women. 

It suddenly occurred to me that actually here you have a really interesting way in which to start to think about the composition of a contemporary working class, which is that it is dominated by waged women, waged African-American and people of color, and waged immigrants, particularly Hispanics. And then you say, how well is this population paid? And if we include in that, that part, which is the security population then you kind of go: well, they're very badly paid and they're very important but not at all well organized. So you suddenly think to yourself, and I had this fantasy, let's suppose all of the workers at the airport suddenly decided to withdraw their labor on a day. Actually, okay, the airport would close down. Let's suppose six airports in the United States—Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, New York—let's suppose they all decided to withdraw their labor on one day. Pretty soon, the whole country would be dysfunctional. I think it was very telling that when Trump took this business of the government shut down, and decided that it was a good idea to shut down the government, they shut it down and then on a particular day there was an interesting moment, I think is was on Wednesday, when it turned out that three airports in the United States couldn't function and so they had to cancel a lot of flights out of LaGuardia and a couple more airports because the air traffic controllers couldn't keep going anymore. They’d been without pay for a month and they just couldn't sustain themselves. So, the air traffic controllers suddenly found themselves—interestingly, since beating the air traffic controllers was one of the big anti-union moves that Reagan made back in 1982 or whenever—that suddenly it must have appeared to Trump and the administration and everyone else that within three or four days most of the airports in the United States would closed down. If you close down the airports to the United States, basically you've closed down capital and you've closed down capital flow. And that means that, actually, the airport workers have a tremendous, immense political power. If the airport or workers were organized, you not only would actually then be dealing with relations between African Americans. Hispanics. and women at the core of a labor movement, but you would be actually looking at an organization of labor, which had the potentiality to do serious damage to a capitalist economy unless its demands were met. 

Then the question arises: what would the demands of such a coalition be? Obviously, to increase wages. Increase wages to the point where people have a decent life in a decent living environment and that would be one of the points. But also politically, I think an airport workers kind of configuration would make a really big difference in terms of actually holding that country to ransom. When you think about it, just think of the few times when we've become close to something of this kind happening. After 9/11, people stopped flying and for about three days everything was quiet. And then all of a sudden, I remember Giuliani and even Bush coming on the airwaves and saying: “please get out and start shopping again. Please get out and start flying again.” Because I think they realized, that if the country didn't actually get back into motion again and continuity again then there will be serious losses in terms of capital. And so, while the immediate response to 9/11 was to shut down and everybody to not go to work and all this kind of stuff, immediately afterwards what we find is this push, real hard push to get us back into work. 

Then there was the Icelandic volcano. I know if you remember this, when the Icelandic volcano erupted and put so much ash in the air that transatlantic flights couldn't go through, for about a week or ten days it was almost impossible to get from New York to London except by going down to, I don't know, Rio de Janeiro and then flying over to Madrid… you’d have to do something like that to get there. So, instead of a volcano, I imagine a volcanic eruption of the airport workers. But for that to happen, the airport workers have to realize that they have a lot of common interests and that they have common demands that they would wish to try to articulate and to win. And not only those common demands, but that they would have a commonality amongst themselves to prosecute those demands and they also have a commonality of power, a tremendous power to close the system down and therefore they would be, it would seem to me, the contemporary labor force, which would be able to do what in the past was done by the miners and done by the auto workers and the like. 

So, the constitution of the workforce has changed. It would be good if there could be an organization of bringing together all restaurant workers. Not only the fast food workers, but the fast food workers is a good place to start. So that when we start to think about the contemporary working-class, it’s no longer the autoworkers who are in the lead. It's no longer the miners who are in the lead. In Britain, for example, I'm not sure there are many miners left. Maybe one or two coal pits still exist, but what was the heart of traditional working-class politics in Britain, which was a miners union, was essentially destroyed by a whole series of moves by Margaret Thatcher, who hated the mine workers, anyway. In the end, of course, mining in Britain has essentially closed down. So, in the face of this, we have to be prepared to think about completely new configurations of the workforce and which is going to wage struggle at the point of production. But, notice this struggle at the point of production is not disconnected from the sorts of lifestyle, which we're now living and what goes on at the point of realization. In the airport workers case, we're talking about the fact that more and more people are actually using airlines. The airline industry is expanding and growing and has been growing at a very fast rate. Not so much in the United States, of course, but in China, for example, they're making airports all over the place and the flying public in China is getting larger and larger so that you're seeing a vast increase in Asiatic air travel. This, too, is predicated on the development of a certain way of life in which we can imagine, all of the time, that we can move very freely as long as we have the money to fly across the Atlantic or fly here, fly there, fly everywhere. 

This is, again, a way of life. This way of life, of course, has all sorts of consequences. One of them, I have to say, that we should be really concerned about is global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, one flight across the continent of the United States is equivalent to gas emissions of, I don't know how many thousand cars over the whole year, but this is a major source of greenhouse gases. Now, do we want to continue hav[ing] a lifestyle where air traffic is central? So, you see the point here is that the growth of air traffic is creating a working class in terms of facilitating that. But, the growth of air traffic is itself caught up in questions of realization and questions of realization that are connected very strongly to questions of lifestyle and the production of new wants, needs, and desires. The want, need, and desire to travel. The want, need, and desire to be in one part of the world, rather than another. These are all sorts of connected questions. But, here too, I think that what we see is the need to think through the relationships between what's going on in the world of realization, the production of new wants, needs, and desires and lifestyles, and what's going on at the point of production. And how we organize at the point of production is, therefore, connected very much with what we will want to do about certain things, which are happening at the point of realization. 

And then, of course, comes the issue of social reproduction. I think it's very fascinating that households, when I was a kid, essentially, all meals were cooked at home. Except, where I came from, on Fridays where we all went to the fish-and-chip shop and got fish and chips from the fish-and-chip shop. But, everything else, all food preparation, was at home. Now you've got a situation in which food preparation is essentially being commoditized and marketized and most of the food preparation does not occur at home. It occurs outside. Families have a choice. Takeout from the local restaurant, but now, of course, you've got all of these organizations, GrubHub and all the rest of it, which are actually allowing you to buy in prepared food elsewhere. And this, by the way, is happening very quickly. I was very surprised to see the last time I was in China massive numbers of bicycles with people delivering food, Chinese takeout. And in China, Chinese takeout is now becoming, if you like, the standard process whereby food preparation is being actually marketized and turns into a commodity. This may or may not be a good thing. I think, again, we can debate the rights and wrongs of that. But, what is most significant is that the lifestyle, which we're talking about in terms of the production and the development of these very large take out organizations and, of course, the proceeding era where it was the fast food industries, Burger Kings and McDonald's and all the rest of it, and the restaurants, so when you start to put this together into a picture you would kind of say we have to really be thinking about the qualities of a lifestyle the how and why of certain forms of provision, which occur within these this lifestyle and what's going on in terms of social reproduction. 

It used to be the situation, where, of course, women did most of the food preparation in the home. But now, if food preparation is not occurring in the home, then this has actually dealt a blow to that gender discrimination where women were essentially stuck in the kitchen doing all of the kitchen labor. But now, kitchen labor has been much reduced by the fact that people dine out or bring in or buy in their daily food. So, in all these respects, when we ask the question: what is to be done? We have to actually ask ourselves what is to be done very specifically about the right of these new lifestyles, the emergence of a certain powerful form of labor organization around, say, fast food and around airports and the like and how the power of that new labor force can be mobilized in a certain kind of way for political ends to try to come up with the transformation of the social order such as it moves away from being all about capital accumulation and capital structures to something, which is much more social and much more cooperative and much less involved in the rapid expansion of capital accumulation, which is one of the other issues that I will get to in the podcast to come. 

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project. 


Transcript by Jake Keyel
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