“I’ve Never Seen a Poor Person Give Anyone a Job”

“I’ve never seen a poor person give anyone a job.”  The cliche is commonly repeated on the Right, in polemics against what they call “class warfare” — not that there’s actually much of it being waged by Democrats, except when they’re fighting on the same side as the Republicans.  See also “Big corporations give people jobs.” It’s a really stupid argument, if you can even dignify it by using that word.

In every society in human history, the class that controls access to the means of production and subsistence, and hence controls access to productive work, is the class that provides whatever “jobs” exist.

Suppose some follower of Milton Friedman in the old Soviet Union thirty years ago had criticized their system of state-owned industry and central planning, and waged “class warfare” against the state managerial bureaucrats and planners.  An apologist for that system could have said — with just as much truth as his American counterpart defending big business — “it’s state industry that provides all the jobs.” A Russian counterpart of Newt Gingrich or Dick Armey could have ridiculed the “class warfare” of people who “want jobs but criticize the state industrial managers who provide them.”

A member of the landed nobility in France seven hundred years ago could have said, with as much justice as his American counterpart, “It’s the great landlords who provide the peasants with land to work to feed themselves.”

All of these “arguments” accept existing distributions of property and power as a matter of course, with no regard to whether or not they came about in a just manner.

The state, by its nature, is the instrument by which some ruling class extracts rents from the labor of the productive classes.  In every society in history since the rise of the state, the state has been controlled by some class that uses it as an instrument for living at the expense of the productive majority.

Modern capitalism is a huge advance on previous class systems in two ways. First, the ruling class has figured out how to allow just enough economic freedom to the producing classes to maximize the rent it can skim off the top.

Second, it leaves its predecessors in the dust when it comes to the kind of ideological legerdemain used to legitimize it in the eyes of its subjects.

In previous systems of class rule, like chattel slavery and manorialism, the exploitative relationship between the ruling class was maintained by direct coercion. There was no doubt in the mind of the slave or serf that he was on the weak end of a power relationship with those for whom he worked.

Modern capitalism, on the other hand, falsely masquerades as a “free market,” presenting the appearance of a neutral set of general laws that governs relations between free and independent contractors. But the appearance of a neutral legal framework is a lot like one of those old mechanical chess-playing machines, in which the “machinery” really consisted of a dwarf on the inside moving the levers.

The “neutral” rules of corporate capitalism are not neutral at all.  They’re rigged to ensure that the house wins the overwhelming majority of the time. Modern capitalism was founded on the expropriation of the peasant majority’s land; to the present day the largest tracts of land are held pursuant to political title rather than homesteading by individual  labor, and the great majority of vacant land has been politically appropriated and held out of use.  Through legal barriers to competition in the supply of credit, through so-called “intellectual property” law, and through assorted regulations that impose entry barriers to competition, the state enables a privileged class of owners to control access to natural  opportunities and collect rents from artificial scarcity.

As Hagbard Celine, one of the characters in R.A. Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy put it, when a series of apparently “equal exchanges” all result in what seems to be a predetermined result, “a mathematically smooth function, a steady profit accruing to one group and an equally steady loss accumulating for all others,” it’s a fair bet “the system is not free or random” after all.  Rather, background rules of the marketplace are set so that A and B “do not bargain as equals.  A bargains from a position of state-granted privilege; hence, he always profits and B always loses.”

Capitalism, Wilson says elsewhere, is “that organization of society, incorporating elements of tax, usury, landlordism, and tariff, which thus denies the Free Market while pretending to exemplify it.” Capitalists occupy a position under capitalism analogous to that occupied by the great landlords under the Old Regime.

Or in Celine’s words:  “There is no more Free Market here than there is on the other side of the Iron Curtain …”

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