Letter on consumption levels of workers in Germany vs. the poor countries Ruthless Criticism

A reader’s letter:
“You exaggerate the poverty of normal wage earners in the rich countries by overlooking their higher consumption level compared to the really poor parts of the world.”

[Translation of a reader’s letter and a response from GegenStandpunkt 3-92]

Letter to the editor

The “democratic consensus in this country” that the wage can be a means for a livelihood in Germany has its basis in the fact that a German wage earner lives better than over 95% of the people in the world, including not only the inhabitants of poor nations, but also the average proles in countries such as the U.S. or the U.K. This fact, which is illustrated in many TV reports, can’t be relativized with the abstract dictum that a comparison is always a mistake, nor with the reverse comparison that the wage is not enough for a private airplane or a high-tech kitchen.

The objective measure of poverty that is stated, the created wealth, “from which the wage laborers who create it are excluded,” has the defect that it is not possible to attribute this wealth to the workers here. The successful economic use of the world by German capital has the result that commodities and raw materials from other countries have, to a considerable extent, entered into virtually every product that leaves the local factories. I cannot see an economic reason why the created wealth should only be attributed to the last stage of production. Where capital no longer knows any national borders in production, one can’t superimpose national glasses in assessing the results.

This national survey of wealth and poverty led the politicians and the common people of the Eastern Bloc countries, in view of the first world being better equipped with means of power and consumption, to introduce the more successful system. Had they considered the third world an integral part of the capitalist states, the bill would have been clear. So now they get the receipt from the IMF and other competent institutions: large parts of the former second world are only good as a third world, and the few exceptional areas will have to first go through a vale of tears for the next ten to twenty years.

Also unconvincing is the suggestion that many of the goods, such as cars, refrigerators, televisions, etc., the ownership of which differentiates German workers from workers in other nations, belongs to the “necessary requirements” without which one could not bear to work in the local high tech workplaces. A Southeast Asian worker in a subcontractor to the German electrical industry is, as far as intensity is concerned, exposed to at least as high a strain – not to mention the extensivity – and yet his wage reaches only a fraction of the goods that a German wage earner can afford. The sometimes assonant allegation that the more modern a workplace is, the higher the physical and psychological exploitation of the labor force working in it, and because the workplaces in Germany are especially modern, exploitation is therefore the most intensive in this country, is wrong. In this respect, no justification can be derived for the different availability of consumer goods in the various regions of the world.

In an effort to shake up the contentment of German wage laborers, there are some skewed characterizations of their living conditions: as far as food, one can only conclude that “the goods of the less well-off are only a caricature of the luxuries of the richer layers” if one assumes, for example, that a good wine only begins with a Lafite Rothschild and a breakfast without caviar is a joke. In this area, the wage is sufficient for indulgences that were previously considered unaffordable luxuries, such as coffee, tea, wine, etc. The attempt of the richer layers to stand out from the masses again in the consumer sector leads to phenomena for which the statement about the sphere of art is true. Also in other areas of consumption, wage laborers toil away not only for “necessities,” but have the freedom to choose whether they want to pimp their ride with a front valance or to spend their money instead on a new stereo system or indulge national feelings at the World Cup in Stockholm.

This relative freedom in the consumer sector is due to the increasingly successful exploitation of third world countries by German capital, which not only constantly lowers the prices of luxury foods (a pound of coffee today costs only half of what it cost ten years ago), but also makes affordable such former luxury products as hand-woven Persian rugs, at a price of 150 DM a square meter, including for lower wage groups.

The overly caricatured poverty of West German wage laborers also makes the difference to the really poor in this country disappear. The elderly, the unemployed, etc. all fit the descriptions that do not apply to wage earners for the reasons mentioned above. In this respect, the concept of a “two-thirds society” describes a state without in the least wanting to explain it. The explanation for it, that the proportion of those unusable for business necessarily increases (unless a major war does not create fundamentally new business conditions), is found in the required clarity on p. 97 ff. Economists have their hands full explaining why, after eight years of boom, unemployment is booming. All successful capitalist states are busy managing the consequences. The solution is the same everywhere: although there is no shortage of potential labor power, “working life” is extended (increasing the retirement age); it is not assumed that a significant proportion of wage earners actually work until 65, but those who have been eliminated earlier just have to settle for a lower pension and contribute to cost savings. All those who are still used are paid in such a way that work continues.

To avoid a misunderstanding: I do not deny capitalist exploitation in modern Germany, but point out weaknesses in the relevant evidence. And it seems to me that referring to the consumption allowed by the wage of an average German worker is the least suitable evidence, for the reasons mentioned above. Much more interesting is what a wage laborer must do (to be found in all issues of Gegenstandpunkt), why there is just no pleasure in the consumption that a wage laborer can afford. This and the fact that, despite all the efforts to provide for a livelihood, it is assured only if neither compulsory redundancies, nor disease, nor age interferes; that is enough in my eyes for a critique of wage labor. Overdrawn characterizations of the type I criticize only make it easier for the reader to dismiss the authors as ideologically pigheaded buffoons.

A methodological note in conclusion: I suspect that the defense of ideologies such as consumer criticisms (which now has only a few supporters) contributes to the conviction criticized above – the denial, against the critics of consumerism, that consumption is possible for German wage earners.

Answer from the editors

“You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general... the workers’ consumption is based on the boom of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.” (Engels to Kautsky, September 12, 1882)

The claim is that wage laborers in the Germany of 1992 live amiably off Germany’s strength on the world market. Really?

– Rents are prohibitively high, more and more people rely on housing assistance.
– There is too little debt counseling – not only in the new states.
– Communities groan under the weight of more and more welfare recipients.
– Health insurance companies only pay a portion of medical expenses, the insured must pay for eyeglasses, dentures, etc., out of pocket.

A few daily references in the newspapers to the amiable life of German proles?

Of course, an Opel worker can afford a stereo system or a front valance for his Manta, especially if he nibbles into his checkbook a little. If he still manages to wangle a 14 day holiday trip to Majorca with wife and kids from his 4000 DM gross a month, he is the first to believe that he can afford an amiable life. In these circles, the idea holds indeed doggedly that it is not at all self-evident that a worker can afford such a “luxury.”

The portrait of the prosperous German worker lives off either these insinuations or – what is nowadays quite in fashion – from the conviction that the consumption carried out in this country is excessive, according to the motto: every prole can now afford “once unaffordable indulgences like coffee, tea and wine,” has a refrigerator, a TV and even a car, must that then be? – Why should the thing that is really not taken for granted be that everyone has needs?

By the way: where are they really running around, these well-to-do German wage workers with their well-filled wallets?

The suggestion is that, instead of concentrating on the boundedness of consumption, one should – in order to argue more credibly – determine exploitation rather by the worker having to do so much for his prosperity that the pleasures it affords are no longer a smart thing. It is also more reasonable to argue with the insecurity of existence.

Undeniably, these two moments of the worker’s existence are accepted by the public as “problematic” modes of our economy. It is decent to complain about the fact that one finds work comes to nothing and that one is concerned about one’s future, to refer to the standpoint that one wants to have something from social wealth and not be excluded from it. – Only: should one dispense with clarity for the sake of credibility?

The matter according to the unclasped separation of: wage = ok and performance = inhuman – is anyway not overly credible. It would surely be strange if the source of income is no good, but its earnings should be far from negligible. The wage is nothing but the ratio: amount of money per performance. Both elements belong together and, as such, are subject to the calculation of capital.

The idea – how can one substantiate the misery of exploitation as credibly as possible? – misses the intention of the article. It does not want to sketch a shocking customs portrait of the condition of the working class, but to explain what it has for itself with the income source v in capitalist society. It is first noted that wage labor exists to increase capital – abstract wealth. For its accumulation, the work that makes concrete use-values is only a means to gain access to money, and needs are only interesting as an ability to pay. The wage has only one reference point to the wealth produced by labor, it is a condition for it, that the wealth comes about, it is for capital a necessary cost. How high it turns out has no measure at all in the created wealth, but is determined entirely according to how much it costs for the labor power to be obtained. It is therefore completely irrelevant to raise questions of justice according to the paradigm: who has created what, and what is therefore entitled to whom really?

Besides, in the absence of any alternative to provide for their livelihood, wage laborers are susceptible to blackmail. This has the consequence that the wage is at best enough to be able to buy things that belong to the “necessary requirements” of wage labor. The fact that this varies highly at different times and in different countries prompted Marx to speak of a “historical and moral element” in the value of labor power.

Neither Marx nor we have claimed that “the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of labor power” is equivalent to the subsistence minimum. If anything, the capitalists see it that way. They make every effort to practically produce this equation in order to reduce their costs. Your argument for the cutting of wage components until now is as follows: that’s not needed; it also goes without it; luxury, we can not afford it. The working citizens are currently having their noses rubbed in the fact that wages are lower in Southeast Asia than here, as background music for the concerted wage reduction which capital, the trade unions and the state push through.

For some people, such wage differences are not evidence for the laws of exploitation and its leeway, but evidence for an amiable standard of living and its sources in a not quite so high somewhere else.

The idea that “successful use of the world by German capital” gives the basis for the amiable life of the German proles has – see the Engels quote – a tradition. Lenin developed it further into the bribery theory which was supposed to explain why the proles in the imperialist countries do not make a revolution.

But what is the letter writer’s point? Should German wage earners really give themselves a bad conscience because their “relative freedom in the consumer sector” comes by way of the “exploitation of the third world by German capital” or should they at least stop complaining about their low wages?

In our opinion, it would be better to simply notice why the hand-woven Persian rug in the German department store is obtainable for 150 DM per square meter, the pound of coffee now for 6 DM. That is because capital (and not “we” Germans) just has the power to extort and exploit starvation wages over there.

The effect on local working class households is that certain items of daily use are cheaper, maybe even affordable in the first place. On the other hand, capital takes advantage of the cheapening of consumer items through the products of the Third World so that for years it has successfully suppressed wages here. And while it is now less of a strain on the wallets of wage laborers to purchase certain goods, other items – such as, for example, rent – clearly hit them all the harder.

For the capitals, the benefit of the “exploitation of the third world” looks a little different. Direct effect: they obtain cheap goods that they can sell with a profit here. Indirect effect: if the reproduction costs of labor power fall, capital saves on wage costs and increases its profit.

The German worker thus stands in only one practical relation to starvelings in the third world: via commercial capital and the commodity market.

Problematizing the “objective standard for poverty, the created wealth, from which the wage workers who create it are excluded” by referring to “the exploitation of the world” from which the raw materials and preliminary products originate, lives off a common false conception about the “exploitation of the third world.” It is by no means true that the sellers of raw materials and intermediate products are cheated of the value of their commodities, that the proles in other countries are paid below value, and the vast accumulation of wealth here would be the result of this rip-off. Even if it can be shown with charts that the average tractor that was once obtainable for 100 bags of coffee is today obtainable for 300, it is not injustice that has been at work, but the law of value. It is not much different for the producers in the third world than for the weavers of the 19th century in Marx’s Capital Vol. 1, for whom the invention of the power loom wrecked the quality of life. The enormous amount of labor time that is performed in the third world just creates less value than a labor hour in a modern factory, although it is good for a whopping portion of surplus value in the accounts of the plantation owners. The raw materials and intermediate products that capital buys there have no other value than the price which the capitalist pays for it. They function as constant capital which – even if it costs very little – merely reappears unchanged in the product’s value.

The idea of a withheld “real” value trivializes imperialism, the global application of the law of value. Since nobody gets “too little” – as moralists think they must compassionately claim to capitalists and democratic politicians – but exactly the value: that’s the result of the circumstance that one is a means of capital in the competition on the world market.

Why should one finally stress the difference between the position of the wage laborers and the “really poor in this country”? It’s a big contradiction to say: proles who are terminated, retired, disabled, etc. have a really shitty life, but on the other hand: one can live well from wage labor in Germany. Wage labor now simply includes “having a job” as well as “being sacked.”

The Social Democratic Party and trade union phrase about the “two-thirds society” is not a correct description of the situation of the working class, or even an inadequate explanation, but an ideology: it explains the existing misery as a scandal that does not actually fit our beautiful society. Marxists, in any case, differ from socialists and charities in that they criticize the normal case, rather than raising the pauper to the status of the exception.