Dave Beech  

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The Secret Life of Profit


Like the monsters of Romantic fiction, profit has two faces. One is neighbourly, friendly, sensible, upright and rational, while the other, its secret face, is imbalanced, out of control, appetitive, hostile, predatory and deeply irrational.
Profit is often – mistakenly – thought of as the motor of capitalist expansion, and therefore the (benign or necessary evil) force that has made the difference between the First and Third Worlds. Hence, it is profit that has brought so much wealth, convenience, progress, great works, comfort and power to one, while condemning the other to misery, poverty, starvation and dependence. In fact, the political Right has often argued that the only way to save the Third World from famine and failure is to convince it to embrace competition and profit so that it may enjoy the rewards that the West has. The secret life of profit is that the West is dependent on the labour of the Third World and that the incursions of capitalism into the Third World have been at the cost of local economies. In fact, the Third World was actively underdeveloped by the practices of western capitalists setting up companies in colonies and imperial lands for the purpose of extracting profit. With the capital draining away from subject nations, a large chunk of the globe was effectively proletarianised – that is, reduced to producing surplus value for the owners of the means of production (western capitalists).


Another major secret in the life of the profit concerns the relationship between capitalist (CEOs, investors, shareholders, etc) and worker. The official (capitalist) story about the relationship between owner and worker is that the daredevil entrepreneur takes all the risks and provides jobs, income, security to the worker. Profit is merely the reward that the risk taker receives for investing earnings, savings and so on in the production of goods that people want. The secret life of profit is that fortunes are only made on the back of other people’s work. Think about it: nobody could possibly make enough saleable material on their own to earn a single million, never mind the vast fortunes seen today. Even the humble singer-songwriter who lives off the royalties of a hit song that continues to find its way onto ‘Best Of’ albums and themed compilations profits from the work of thousands of workers labouring in CD manufactories, distribution warehouses, record shops and the like. Profit is not the amount due to the capitalist as a return on investment: profit is the amount a capitalist can steal from workers by paying them less than the value that their labour adds to the raw materials (bought at a reduced rate, no doubt, because the workers that provide the raw materials are also a source of profit). Every economy produces surplus; the secret of capitalism is not that it produces more profit than other economies but that the surplus is taken by the possessing class away from the rest.


The secret life of profit stretches far beyond the relations between exploiter and exploited; the biggest secret in the life of profit is that for as long as capitalists hold the means of production then the whole of culture and society will be curtailed by the prospect of profit. Nobody any longer produces what s/he needs and uses; the work of millions of people is necessary for any single person’s survival. No-one escapes from the logic of exchange but is, on the contrary, dependent on it and vulnerable to it. Industry continues to develop in leaps and bounds but according to calculations about where the highest profits can be achieved. The secret life of profit is not that it spurs industry and commerce but that it distorts society by bending its efforts to the needs of the appropriating class. More labour time and capital investment is directed into pornography, gambling and brand development than cancer research, environmental protection and support for children, the sick and the elderly because more profit can be made from exploitation than care (the exploitation of care by private schools, hospitals and ‘care homes’ is an open secret in the life of profit). The big supermarket chains, too, demonstrate how profit distorts everything when they wipe out small businesses in the local area by squeezing the price that farmers all over the world can charge for their goods afraid of losing such large and regular orders.


Time has been distorted by profit, too. It is one of the darkest secrets of the life of profit that in pre-industrialised society the working day was shorter than the needs of capital require. The actual working days in the medieval year was roughly 240, while the average working week in the mines of the fifteenth century was 36 hours. Capitalist enterprise lengthens the working day in order to capitalise on it. What’s more, the hours spent working under the reign of profit are worse than in previous periods because labour is militarised, rationalised, managed, monitored, degraded and mechanised. Technology does not take the burden off the worker but increases it by boosting the rate of production. You can see this in the home as much as the factory. So-called timesaving devices do not give you more time on your hands but multiply the number of tasks to be completed. Technology does not liberate us from work to enjoy more ‘free’ time; it speeds everything up so that even leisure time is experienced at the pace of hard labour and in chunks of time that are ordered like the working week. Indeed, the weekend itself is a by-product of the industrialisation of time, just as ‘leisure time’ does not arise historically until capitalists have devised ways of commercialising non-productive time by selling workers amusements. Work hard and play hard: this is the slogan of the secret life of profit because capital grows by increasing the amount of labour it can extract for the same pay and then takes your wages back by selling you rest from work.