The Inefficiency of Socio-Cultural Regulation Under Capitalism

All societies that have existed and exist today have in common the fact that they enable some degree of sociocultural regulation. This process includes the behaviors, rituals, and resources of a particular culture that, in some fashion, sate the needs of a society’s population. On a basic level every culture accomplishes this by communicating at least enough information to individuals to survive, means not withstanding. It is for this reason that the culture of a given society is reproduced and circulated by each surviving generation. Antonio Damasio, world-renown neuroscientist, in presenting his lifetime of research, suggests that this is due to a fundamental human impulse that motivates and aids us in accomplishing the tasks necessary for survival. He explains the relevance of this drive in our social evolution:

I suggest that the engine behind these cultural developments is the homeostatic impulse…They respond to a detection of imbalance in the life process, and they seek to correct it within the constraints of human biology and of the physical and social environment. The elaboration of moral rules and laws and the development of justice systems responded to the detection of imbalances caused by social behaviors that endangered individuals and the group. The cultural devices created in response to the imbalance aimed at restoring the equilibrium of individuals and of the group. The contribution of economic and political systems, as well as, for example, the development of medicine, responded to functional problems that occurred in the social space and that required correction within that space, lest they compromise the life regulation of the individuals that constituted the group. The imbalances that I am referring to are defined by social and cultural parameters, and the detection of imbalance thus occurs at the high level of the conscious mind, in the brain’s stratosphere, rather than at the subcortical level. I call this overall process ‘sociocultural homeostasis’ (Damasio)

Here, Damasio illustrates the role that human civilization has played in strengthening our devices for accomplishing “sociocultural homeostasis.” Situated within history, many of these “functional problems” become apparent. Slaveocracies used brutal force to accomplish the “necessary” differentiation between social classes while also meeting societal demands for labor. Feudalism created organized states, utilizing land lords for the purpose of prescribing occupations and dictating land use. Capitalism created the “freedom of the market” where any individual could sell his or her own labor or product in a capital-based economy. Imperialism provided the means through which capitalism could continually expand and seize markets whenever the rate of profit became undesirable due to resources or contempt within the labor market. Within each of these systems, people were able as individuals to detect “imbalances” in their societies’ ability to reach sociocultural homeostasis. Draughts, food shortages, the quality of goods, and the quality and degree of social freedom are all reflections of societal balance and imbalance. However, each historical epoch is characterized by a portion of the population which, instead of simply “detecting” imbalances, is also privileged with positions of authority from which they attempt to act upon these imbalances. More importantly, it is noteworthy that these special groups within each population have sufficient resources to  define and redefine what an imbalance is. This is most apparent wherever an economist insists upon the necessity of an unemployed population.

Culture: The Social Mind’s Strategy For Human Survival

Each of these historical epochs contains divisions that play particular roles in creating the homogeneity that constitutes the identity of a singular “culture.” These divisions are reflective of the interests of classes with contradictory interests in a society. At the same time, there are further divisions within these classes as a result of the variance found in the vast global population of workers. Here it is important to note that each class, without negotiation, does not accept these social divisions. Indeed, we use verbal and written strategies to communicate a social agreement in which some work and others hire, but they do not intrinsically represent the “free-will” of the individuals who choose accept their social role in a given class. This is due to the fact that we as individuals are born into a particular societal context where we, through experience, evaluate the socioeconomic environment around us in order to make critical social decisions, which affect our quality of life (ostensibly measured by the quantity of commodities our earnings allow). Marxists George Novack and Ernest Mandel highlight the fact that these conditions inherent in capitalism may appear normal to us who are living under capitalism, but, in fact, they are relatively new developments in our expansive human history:

The fact that the modern wage earner owns none of the products of his labor, obvious as it may appear to people who are accustomed to bourgeois society, is not at all so self-evident from the viewpoint of human history as a whole. It was not like that for thousands upon thousands of years of human existence…(Novack & Mandel)

Instead, the civil behaviors we engage in daily in order to understand and navigate our working positions under capitalism are strategies we have developed in order to avoid direct conflict with the existence of the modern state. The civil acceptance of class oppression by a violent state (Or, rather, a state which utilizes the threat of violence to achieve social cohesion) is what motivates people to accept the duties of their particular class which has been prescribed to them by the ruling class (the class which commands the most amount of capital) which decides upon the methods of sociocultural regulation individuals are allowed to utilize within a class-dominated society. While the state embodies the devices for negative motivation, capital embodies positive motivation under capitalism. Damasio stresses the importance of understanding how culture and biology are thoroughly intertwined neurologically;

The idea that there are two broad classes of homeostasis, basic and sociocultural, should not be taken to mean that the latter is a purely ‘cultural’ construction, while the former is ‘biological’ Biology and culture are thoroughly interactive. Sociocultural homeostasis is shaped by the workings of many minds whose brains have first been constructed in a certain way under the guidance of specific genomes.(Damasio)

Oftentimes the supposedly “commonsense” understanding of “human nature” lazily explains why people oppress and are oppressed, why people compete and show apathy rather than empathy. The shallow analysis of these perspectives boils down to some mythical “greed” and “hate” drive which inevitably produces injustice and evil. Aside from being grossly dehumanizing, this perspective fails to explain why the bearers of this cultural “knowledge” are not themselves oppressors instead of oppressed people. Perhaps more disturbingly, it suggests that all of humanity is powerless to resist the apparently seductive nature of oppressing other human beings. Luckily, however, in deconstructing the nature of our human responses to environmental stimuli, it becomes more obvious that the expressions of oppression we observe today and have observed throughout history are but coping strategies in the face of violence, natural and manufactured scarcity, racism, sexism, the threat of starvation and homelessness, and other equally strenuous environmental stimuli. With all of these present in existing societies it follows that these negative stimuli permeate into any culture where these stressors are present in the environment. What Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha reveal in their book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, is the fact that a great deal of egalitarianism and harmony was present in societies that preceeded agriculture:

Difficult as it may be for some to accept, skeletal evidence clearly shows that our ancestors didn’t experience widespread, chronic scarcity until the advent of agriculture. Chronic food shortages and scarcity-based economies are artifacts of social systems that arose with farming. In his introduction to Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, Gowdy points to the central irony: ‘Hunter-gatherers…spent their abundant leisure time eating, drinking, playing, socializing—in short, doing the very things we associate with affluence.’ (Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha)

It is for this reason that, taking into consideration the scope and ability of industrial agriculture, scarcity is largely manufactured by the capitalist ruling class in the interest of profit. By manufacturing scarcity the ruling class’ commands a significant amount of social leverage because it is able to decide upon a select few who will receive privileged access to the resources and commodities that circulate within the capitalist market. This allows otherwise oppressed people to “escape” from the taxing nature of their social environment where goods are scarce or at least expensive. These privileges do not directly deal with the causes of oppression, but rather skate over them, portraying the inequality inherent in oppression as a necessary evil in exchange for privilege. Privilege, in any form, lubricates an individual’s strategies of sociocultural regulation, effectively repressing their otherwise instinctual animosity for their oppressors and the fear elicited by the violence of the ruling class’ state. The historical fact that these concessions for sociocultural regulation have not always existed is oftentimes suppressed and rewritten in the minds of workers living under capitalism by the institutions of knowledge erected by privileged classes.

How Relative Social Privilege becomes the Foundation of Class Division

The implicit conclusion embodied in this historical observation is that the concessions given in exchange for class oppression are also unnecessary. If less intensive work days and more relaxed work schedules were possible in natural scarcity, or “primitive communism” to use the Marxist term, the exponential increase in the intensity of our work week under manufactured scarcity becomes glaringly apparent. Part of this is tolerated in society because of the existence of this tightly controlled population of privileged persons;

‘Affluenza’ (a.k.a. Luxury fever) is not an eternal affliction of the human animal, as some would have us believe. It is an effect of wealth disparities that arose with agriculture. Still, even in modern societies, we sometimes find echoes of the ancient egalitarianism of our ancestors (Ryan and Jetha).

The accumulation of capital is perhaps the most fundamental facet of the “American Dream.” It is the false premise that all persons who “work hard” and remain patriotic will be rewarded with more capital than those who have allegedly worked less for considerably less capital in the form of minimum wages for “unskilled labor.” This illusion venomously obscures those who already, by right of private ownership of property, possess larger amounts of capital which they can circulate in a capitalist economy for yet more capital, i.e. profit. Classes considered, only one class has a direct role in determining the conditions of private property in the capitalist economy. This class under capitalism is the bourgeoisie. This class possesses such an astronomically large portion of existing capital that their decisions directly influence every individual who interacts with bourgeois property or receives payment from the bourgeoisie’s capital. The myth of the “trickle down effect” is an illusion and a redundancy because the capitalist market insists that capital be circulated such that profit can be made. The rate at which profit is expropriated is determined by the cost of production, which, by both competition and by capitalist interest, is driven lower whenever it can be. Because wages are included in the cost of production, it is rarely if ever in the interest of capitalists to spend more than absolutely necessary on wages and income. Economic systems and schemes that aim to lessen the costs of the privileged elite are protecting profit exclusively while maintaining the lie that it will better the conditions of workers.

Here is where the bourgeoisie decides the proportions of people who will receive a particular amount of “privilege” in the form of wages. Here a person experiences privilege (or does not) by belonging to a particular “tax bracket.” Thus commanding a given amount of capital in relation to the general population represents a particular form of privilege with profound social implications.

Class, in this sense, is determined by an individual’s relationship to the privately owned means of production. Workers (the proletariat) are people who have nothing to sell but their own labor, and they sell it to the bourgeoisie who employ labor for the creation of commodities or a salable service in order to expropriate the value generated by employed labor for profit, which is then re-invested in the same fashion. Such is the stage set by the modern social environment where capital rules:

When I think of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, I picture body-builders, alpha male gorillas, or lions stalking their ultimately doomed prey. But what does it mean to be the ‘fittest’ in our modern society? Certainly it is not the romantic notion of the noble savage. The instincts to run fast, fight others, and catch our own food have been channeled into hobbies and sports. Remember, survival of the fittest is entirely dependent on the environment to which the organism is trying to adapt. In the first decade of the first 21st century we are adapting to information overload, spiraling expectations, and being stuck in traffic. The freeway is our savanna; the internet superhighway is our Galapagos. Could the fittest in our society actually be the average citizen, going about his daily routine with a solid sense of self, able to successfully navigate relationships and regulate the stress of sitting through business settings? (Cozolino).

Here Louis Cozolino touches upon a major feature of modern capital. The abilities that most directly contribute to our survival are those employed for the purpose of receiving payment in exchange for our labor, which is then spent on basic necessities—shelter, clothing, food, and water. It is precisely because capitalism demands capital in exchange for virtually anything that those persons, who command the most amount of capital, who are the ones with the power to select the “fittest” traits. The bourgeoisie buys labor, expropriates the product of labor, and sells it back to laborers for more capital than was originally invested.

The Consequences of Class

These two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, are homogeneous classes in the sense that they each represent a general interest as a division of the population. Workers desire less taxing work for more pay, and the bourgeoisie desire the cheapest labor possible in exchange for the largest profit. There are, in addition to these two fundamental classes, somewhat superfluous classes that are heterogeneous in their interests: the lumpen-proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie (I use strictly Marxist terms here for lack of a more modern term for the same population of people). These classes indirectly influence the capitalist labor market as opposed to the proletariat and bourgeoisie who directly control and make up the labor market.  If it is difficult to understand these classes in a modern context, consider the purpose with which an individual works. Those who invest their capital for a return are not necessarily part of the ruling class, however if one observes the further division in this category by the amount of capital, and the number of people who are affected by the circulation of that same quantity of money, it becomes more obvious who the ruling class is and who belongs to the petty bourgeoisie who, by comparison, command far less capital. Workers who are employed, selling nothing but their own labor, belong to the proletariat (the modern working class) whereas those who are not employed or perhaps simply “manage workers” do not necessarily belong to the proletariat.

The lumpen-proletariat here can be understood as the “reserve army of labor” or more commonly, the unemployed. These are people who, due to economic conditions, are not employed. Despite this fact, the bourgeoisie, which acts on behalf of capitalism, needs a population of unemployed workers as leverage against employed workers in the event that the proletariat should, for example, ask for higher wages, fight for better treatment from their bosses, or any such demand that undermines the bourgeoisie’s rate of profit–the speed and efficiency through which labor creates value which is expropriated by the bourgeoisie in the form of profit.

The petty-bourgeoisie represent all persons who participate in the workplace or other capitalist institutions such as small business owners, students, managers, etc. The petty-bourgeoisie indirectly influence the capitalist economy because they either lack enough capital to truly compete with the bourgeoisie or their position in society does not as directly influence the value of commodities as does the working class. Students are included here because their labor is not expropriated in exchange for wages (there will be a separate point on the educational system in part 3 of this installment). This class is not necessarily comparable with the modern conception of the “middle class” because the latter unnecessarily divides the working class according to how much an individual earns, while ignoring the similarities between the social roles people are prescribed according to class. For example, a worker who has been given a higher wage than another worker might consider him/herself to be “better than” the “lower class” or belonging to the “middle class.”

These two classes are heterogeneous because there is not one particular interest that accurately represents the entire group. In each of these classes are contradictory interests and conditions, which could not feasibly represent a cohesive interest. In the context of the main stage of class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, heterogeneous classes can be “split” because they can be sufficiently inspired to support either current of a political conflict, assuming the side they choose can satisfactorily address their needs in an alternative system of sociocultural regulation. The more privileged a member of a heterogeneous class is, the less likely they are to sympathize with the working class in their struggle against the bourgeoisie. In this instance, they become reactionary, seeking to justify their own privilege by adopting dehumanizing attitudes for those who are less fortunate.

The existence of these social divisions creates a social dynamic wherein workers are “alienated” from the means of production, counteracting the exponential growth in the human population (thus, socialization also) with a dehumanizing social condition that prevents communal efforts and action. George Novack and Ernest Mandel elucidate the consequences of alienation:

Having established alienated labor as the basis of the beginning of capitalist production, Marx then deduces the consequences. Labor becomes alienated when the producer works, not directly for himself or a collective united by common interests, but for another with interests and aims opposed to his own. This antagonistic relation of production injures the worker in many ways. (1) He is estranged from his own body which must be maintained as a physical subject, not because it is part of himself, but so that it can function as element of the productive process. (2) He is estranged from nature since natural objects with all their variety in function, are not means for his self-satisfaction or cultural production. (3) He is estranged from his special traits and abilities as they are not needed, used or developed by his economic activities which degrade him to the level of a mere physical force. (4) Finally, he is separated from his fellow human beings. ‘Where man is opposed to himself, he also stands opposed to other men.

Such is the modern context in which members of society must navigate.