They must pay

Let’s think about money.

Maybe you like money. It buys things. It in fact offers power: Would the lady who brought me my breakfast sandwich and coffee this morning in fact have done so if she were not being paid by another lady whom I paid? She did it and she did it with a smile on her face. (I tip well, too, so I guess that helps.)

The “smile on her face” part is an issue on its own: There is something very weird about being required to smile as part of a job, smiling regardless of whether one is happy. There is no glamour in a breakfast sandwich, coffee, or any of the other offerings at this cafe. She derives no direct benefit from my nourishment. Why should she be so happy? The fact she’s a young woman and I’m an old (nearly 60) man introduces its own additional issues which I’m just not taking on right now. But yeah, something’s up and a proper power relationship analysis (I’ll return to this) would probably wipe away that smile and maybe even take away my breakfast in short order.

I’m thinking about the money.

Money, we are taught at an early age—or maybe an introductory Economics class that I barely remember—is a medium of exchange. It acts as a proxy for someone’s—not necessarily your own—property or labor. I paid for my breakfast with money I had earned from Uber, although that money could have been a gift from a relative or money I had stolen. The lady who owns the cafe has her own car (recognizable with personalized license plates), is perfectly capable of driving herself around, and does drive herself around. She doesn’t need me to drive her some place. But some people did want me to drive them some places and they paid me through Uber, much as I paid for my breakfast.

There are, in fact, several layers of abstraction here, which that introductory Economics class glosses over. Yes, as a medium of exchange, money is a much more efficient substitute for barter. That’s not an unalloyed good, a point to which I will return.

But let’s pick apart that transaction with a limited life cycle analysis: First, in order even to drive for Uber (I also drive for Lyft, but Uber seems to dominate in the markets I serve) so I could pay for that breakfast, I had to have a car. This was a transaction of its own: The money was a gift from my aunt, who did very well in technology in Massachusetts at a time (I believe the 1960s and 1970s) when Massachusetts rivaled and even surpassed Silicon Valley. I have also had to maintain the car and keep it fueled, comprising numerous additional transactions. And none of this has anything directly to do with me getting breakfast this morning, except that I used the car to drive myself to the cafe, and I used the car to earn the money to pay for the breakfast.

To earn the money I used to pay for breakfast, I had to make myself available to Uber. And people had to use Uber. I had to pick them up and drive them to their destinations, expending fuel and adding wear and tear to the car. And Uber had to pay me.

My breakfast transaction, we can therefore see by extending the life cycle analysis through all these other transactions, is one outcome of a huge number of transactions. Just as each of my passengers helps to pay for my breakfast, I help the owner of the cafe pay her costs (including for her workers). None of us contributes a lot, but the myriad transactions add up—I grossed about $160 last night (not bad for a Wednesday night in winter).

It still isn’t much. I have bills to pay, too. But the superficially simple act of paying for my breakfast in fact obscures the complexity of what has occurred and the horrendous inefficiency that a return to a barter system would entail.

Now, what I have just described is a social construction. None of this would make any sense at all if there were no humans in a group trying to live with each other. We wouldn’t think of work as work; as individuals we would gather our own food, improvise our own shelters, and walk ourselves or enslave horses to get where we need to go. There would be no exchange system, let alone money.

So it’s just a bit curious when we insist, for example, that the federal debt must be paid down. This debt does not actually exist except as numbers on a ledger. It is a feature of an exchange system—as we have seen, a very complex exchange system, but an exchange system—in which what we have already done is not enough, so financial institutions lend money against future (and assumed) productivity. But it all only exists because we say it does, the hallmark of a social construction.

Money is a proxy for productivity and property. Money is a social construction. Productivity and property, as measured, are constructions too. But the actual work, the actual things are not.

Could we harvest the coffee beans, make the coffee, serve each other without money? Of course we could. But because we distrust each other, and strongly suspect that we would freeload off each other to the extent we can get away with (the “free rider” problem), we insist on exchange.

There are a few catches in all this. One is the Labor Theory of Value. I see the owner of the cafe doing a lot of work and interacting with customers a lot. In fact, her workers just sang “Happy Birthday” for her and offered her a cupcake with two (I don’t know why, two) candles on top. It would be wrong to claim that she exists solely off the labor of others because she does work in the cafe. But other people also work in her cafe and with the Labor Theory of Value, we understand that the profit she derives from her workers is in fact a form of theft from those workers.[1]

You might be thinking to yourself, hmmmm. . . That doesn’t sound right. And as any capitalist will hasten to assure you, this time, rightly, it isn’t, at least not completely. This approach to the Labor Theory of Value, overly particularizes labor. The lady at the cash register took my money, poured my coffee, and brought me the breakfast sandwich that another worker made. All of that is labor. But it is not entirely individual labor.

Somebody had to harvest the beans. Somebody had to bring them to northern California. Somebody had to roast them. Somebody had to grind them. Somebody had to make the coffee. And, finally, after all of that, somebody had to fucking pour it. Something similar, but a bit more complex, had to happen with my sandwich. This morning, at least two workers were directly involved in preparing my breakfast but many more were indirectly involved.

The cut that the owner takes which, with the Labor Theory of Value, we are labeling “theft,” at least in part, in fact goes not only to her but to pay for a lot of all that and overhead expenses. Just as I have expenses that come out of what I earn with Uber. But as I understand Karl Marx’s treatment of the Labor Theory of Value,[2] we only acknowledge the mutuality of labor and overhead expenses in passing. The problem with this approach is that it assumes employers in fact do nothing but profit off their workers. Surely, we can allow, there are cases where this is so or even mostly so, but to assume it generally is a fallacy.

So it is possible to assume the image which, certainly, the owner of the cafe seeks to project (and I think hopes to actualize), in which she and the workers are all just one happy team. That isn’t quite the case either.

When you’re looking for a job, you probably apply at a number of places before you find something. There are a number of employers who are less interested in you than you are in them. These employers will probably be just fine if they hire someone else besides you. On the other hand, if no one hires you, you’re likely in a world of hurt. Where’s the power relationship here?

Capitalist libertarians pretend—and I think delude themselves into believing—that the labor market is a level playing field. They imagine that employers are as desperate to find workers as the unemployed are to find jobs. So let me ask a question: Are you making as much money as you’d like? Of course not: If you’re like most people, you settled for less than you like.

Why did you settle for less than you want? Because you needed the job. And because you had bills to pay and you were afraid you wouldn’t soon be able to get what you wanted.

The lady who smiled as she brought me my sandwich is, to say the least, unlikely to have smiled because she found me attractive or even interesting. She smiled because it was her job and she knows, even if no one ever told her, she needs to appear grateful for that job.

All that rather strongly suggests an unequal and really rather adverse power relationship between employers and workers or would-be workers. Which is what Max Weber said about capitalism: He observed that the advantage in any negotiation lay with whomever had the greater ability to say no, to decline an offer. Whoever has that advantage, because we live in a society that rewards greed, can, and very likely will, negotiate a better deal for themselves at the expense of the other party.[3]

In the job market, the well off can wait for a better offer. The rich can pick and choose whom they hire. The poor have to take what they can get, even when it is less than a living wage, which is to say rather bluntly that our economic system does not even recognize the value of their lives.

Ask anyone who works for tips: The rich are the worst tippers. Part of the way they get rich, a la Andrew Carnegie, is by systematically devaluing other people. Which brings us right back to Marx’s take on the Labor Theory of Value. Marx was, on the whole, largely right,[4] and with the benefits and handicaps of each transaction being cumulative, capitalism—really any system of exchange—inherently operates to widen social inequality.[5]

Regardless of what Buddhists and New Agers would have you believe, the resulting misery is real. The exchange system that creates, sustains, and exacerbates that misery is a social construction. And money makes that exchange system, hence immiseration, more efficient.

We cannot say that this social construction doesn’t work for us. It does: very well for some of us and well enough for most of us. But as homeless camps multiply and grow in size, it’s clear that it isn’t working well enough, not only for the homeless themselves but for the rest of us who must navigate around them and who, as human beings, witness their plight.

So what we should say instead is that to the extent we accept this social construction, we do so out of greed and self-interest, the very rationale for the social construction in the first place: We expect others to be as self-interested as we are. We expect them to take advantage—this is the “free rider” problem—if there is no system for quantifying their contributions to society. And so we insist that they must pay.

But then we must ask ourselves, how do we feel about being undervalued? Does this incline us to treat others, especially those who are taking advantage of our need for jobs, honestly?

What the Labor Theory of Value shows us is that even with an exchange system, we still have something of a “free rider” problem, in the sense that most of us are still being taken advantage of, indeed stolen from. That some folks are rich does not make them any less thieves. But the rich are not truly held accountable: That’s for the rest of us.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Trying to understand Marx’s Development of the Labor Theory of Value,” December 3, 2013,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Trying to understand Marx’s Development of the Labor Theory of Value,” December 3, 2013,
  3. [3]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Trying to understand Marx’s Development of the Labor Theory of Value,” December 3, 2013,
  5. [5]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.

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