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August 31, 2003

Bigger than Capitalism

by John Clay, editor-in-chief

Many US citizens have a "day off from work" this Monday—September 1, Labor Day. It sounds ironic at first; a day without labor to celebrate labor. But it's not ironic. It's inaccurate. Many Americans will spend at least part of the holiday working on all the tasks left undone during the week: shopping for groceries, paying bills, doing household cleaning and repairs, fixing cars, building websites, making art, writing novels, and a thousand other skilled and unskilled projects. In the US, as elsewhere, paid jobs constitute only a fraction of our weekly workload.

Bhag's artists and writers (and editors) know this as well as anyone. None of us receives compensation for sharing our works in bhag, nor for editing and running the website. Some of bhag's artists sell much of their work through other publishers or galleries, some sell a little, and some sell none at all. But we all keep working. Not because we don't want to be paid for our work, but because the work must go on, paid or not.

In certain artistic circles in New York City, professional caliber performances and exhibitions are developed and staged through barter. Directors, actors, video artists, musicians, carpenters, technicians, many of whom live near the poverty level, trade services to each other in order to make a show happen that never would happen if all of them demanded cash. This represents the kind of labor-based economy envisioned by classical economists and expressed in Benjamin Franklin's pithy observation that "Trade is nothing but the exchange of labor for labor."

The whole of unpaid labor—a huge engine of productivity encompassing essential personal chores as well as innovative art, writing, performance, craft, design, culinary art—rests, in fact, outside the formal economy. Personal chores are supposed to be paid for by income from our paid jobs, but the equation is often very crude. Shortfalls in making ends meet occur often, no matter how sensible our spending. And other unpaid projects we do out of love and commitment and inspiration are simply not accounted for at all. In a capitalist economy, you are expected to make a product that you can sell to other consumers for cash, so that you can buy products from other producers. Making a product to be disseminated without regard for its salability is not a recognized option under capitalism.

As for daily personal chores, paid work is called "making a living" because it is supposed to constitute a full trade for all the daily chores we otherwise would directly perform for ourselves: making our own clothes, building and maintaining our own homes, cooking and cleaning, procuring our own food, running our own errands. Oddly enough, for many of us, a full-time job, which should account for a full day's needs, pays just enough to cover some of these needs but not all. As a result, after a full day's work or a full week's work, we still are not done. No wonder Americans sleep shorter hours than doctors recommend and still feel like they can never catch up. Full-timers are putting in a full day's work, but that work is not paying for a full day's living in return. We are not getting a fair trade for our labor.

As for innovative and artistic projects, people often call these "hobbies". A hobby is not an essential daily chore but produces a product (called entertainment) which is strictly for our own consumption. This pathetic misinterpretation of art is popular because it fits the production-consumption model recognized under capitalism. Because art is defined as personal entertainment (which is incorrect) and because entertainment is not considered an essential life activity but rather a luxury (which also is incorrect), employers do not factor art or craft expenses into their employees' income needs. Meanwhile, these artistic projects drive culture and are important sources of product and marketing innovation. Corporations seem to treat art as a private luxury when fixing income but as a public resource when scouting the streets for new ideas available free-of-charge.

Capitalism as currently practiced is seriously flawed if guilty of these two failings alone: (1) the inadequate compensation of daily needs and (2) the misinterpretation, then plundering, of art. But just as I am in danger of spoiling the holiday spirit by pointing out the misfit between capitalism and an important share—how large exactly, I don't know—of our domestic product, let me make a hopeful observation. In the USA, which is perhaps the most thoroughly, enthusiastically, unreflectively capitalist nation in the world, something amazing is happening. An enormous amount of labor is being done outside of capitalism. Workforces exist that capitalism says can't exist. Work is being done that capitalism says ought never be done, and for reasons that capitalism cannot ever understand. Even those who love capitalism should fear its shortfalls and fear what life would be like if capitalism, with its flaws, ruled all. But it doesn't. Precisely the work that capitalism cannot handle, cannot interpret, cannot produce, is being produced anyway. The American economy is bigger than capitalism. So is the American spirit. And so is our day.

© 2003 John Clay

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