Meillassoux on population and wages

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Tue Jun 03 2003 - 18:20:30 EDT

Other interesting analyses at the site as well

Marxist anthropologist Claude Meillassoux was interviewed By Francois
Chesnais for the journal Carre Rouge (May 2000 issue). This is a
draft translation of extracts - Given to Left Unity Iran By Movemnet
for Socialism
Francois Chesnais (FC) ...How was it that you became that rare
phenomenon, an anthropologist who is politically engaged?
Claude Meillassoux (CM) The start of my theoretical engagement came
from the facts I confronted in my first research field-trip in
Africa. I went to a region, that of the Soninke, where a good number
of workers had emigrated to France. I realised that the people I saw
living in the village could be met in the living quarters of
immigrant workers in France. I asked myself how it could be that
these poor people, with few resources, could all the same become the
means of enrichment of another society, our own. What was it that
caused these immigrant workers to find themselves in the situation of
a special superexploitation? I believed I could find the basic answer
in the fact that these individuals, born in a certain milieu which
had until then been preserved from the most direct contact with the
capitalist system, could find itself transported into another system,
our own, namely capitalism, in order there to sell their labour power
under conditions very advantageous to those who bought it. At home,
the Soninke lived in a social framework which I called the domestic
community. There they were born, were raised for part of their lives
by their elders in order to become producers who in their turn would
look after those who had raised them. A whole cycle worked like this.
Emigration as it were interrupted thiscycle. Instead of working to
sustain the lives of those who had worked for them, these productive
young people went to work far away, expending their labour power to
enrich a society and an economic system which had contributed nothing
to their upkeep and their human formation in their first 20 years.
This amounted to a reduction in the cost of reproduction of labour
power. The immigrants' labour was paid at a cheap price, not only by
reason of their being unskilled and because of the power-relations in
the metropolis where they worked, but because the cost of their
upbringing wasn't counted, was obtained free by capital, in the same
way as capital obtains many natural resources free and as a
consequence unscrupulously squanders and destroys them. Examining the
situation as a whole in the underdeveloped countries and the
institutions put in place to make them function, I concluded that
this problem of paying the price of labour below its value was one of
the very foundations of all the organs established to facilitate
these relations. The IMF, for example, the IMF's policy of
'structural adjustment', and the World Bank, what is more
independently of the other international organisms, which were never
consulted about any of the decisions they took: all these organs
demand of the underdeveloped countries that they carry out such a
policy, which consists essentially of bringing down the price of
labour, in order not to have to pay its real cost....
FC You diverge a little from Marx on the matter of the mechanisms
determining wages.
MC Effectively, Marx considered that the wage was always enough to
sustain a worker and ensure the conditions of reproduction of labour
power. But that's not so, is it? Even Ricardo and Smith say that the
wage can be below the cost of reconstitution of labour power. Marx
wrote as a theoretician of capitalism which, in order to function,
must effectively provide the worker with enough to reconstitute
himself and even to have a family. At this level he had a rather
optimistic view of capitalism. On the other hand, he considered that
the system, the critique that he made of the capitalist system, would
become totally pertinent only when in a certain sense everything came
within the logic of capitalism. That was not the case in 1950, even
if today one can begin to say that the logic of capital has overcome
everything in its path and completely destroyed all other social
formations, where previously it sought rather to subordinate them to
itself. In Femmes, greniers et capitaux (trans. Maidens, Meals and
Money) I said that if capitalism was to impose itself everywhere,
there would be no more non-capitalist societies in which one could
make super-profits due to what is called primitive accumulation, that
is, the fact that a non-capitalist economic system transfers part of
its revenues, in a certain sense part of its resources, to a
capitalist system. Thus from the moment the system becomes a
complete, closed one, do we not have the situation which Marx
considered to be that in which the critique of capitalism becomes
effective in the facts, so to speak?
FC But haven't you identified mechanisms of the determnation of
wage-levels of a very particular kind in the case of child labour?
CM We ...have published a work in which we attempt to understand why
child labour has become so widespread. And here too there exists a
logic proper to capitalism but not necessarily to the society in
which these children live. In these societies, children are not put
to work in order to make profit; they are forced into that by reason
of the economic conditions to which they are subjected. What economic
conditions? Again, it is the lowering of wage-levels to so low a
level that the children come into competition with their parents. The
workings of exploitation and of the market mean that children
eliminate their parents from the labour market; and so, since they
have little protection, they are paid practically any sum the
employer decides. Moreover, and this is very important, the advantage
of having children work is that they have employment only so long as
they remain children. From the moment they cease to be children, they
are of no further interest to their employers. Thus from the human
point of view, this is extremely serious, because the individual who
ceases to be a child is no longer useful for anything: he/she has had
no training, has never studied, and is thrown on the street. The
child's 'retirement' is the street, the street at some 15 years of
age. He/she has been used by the system under conditions extremely
profitable for the employers during childhood and is then thrown on
the scrapheap.
FC What are the demographic effects of this vicious system?
CM The demographic effects of child labour are the following: in
order to survive a family must always have a child working.
Consequently this supposes for the wife, for women, that they produce
a child every five years or so. This is so that they may always have
a child at work. It also means that they must provide for that child
for five years. At first this seems possible, but in the end its
becomes a heavy burden on the mother, especially as in most cases the
husband has left because he cannot find work. So, after a certain
time, the mother finds herself unable even to feed a child up to the
age of five, and what you are now seeing, on a massive scale, is
children under five years old being abandoned.....
FC In your book L'economie de la vie, I was struck by the chapter
entitled 'The Lesson of Malthus', in which you put forward an
interpretation of the mechanisms at the origin of theAIDS pandemic
which is ravaging Africa, and of the famines and many mutual
killings, sustained or permitted by foreign powers ... Are not these
things the expression of certain profound tendencies of imperialism
in the framework of the 'globalisation' (mondialisation) of capital?
For my part, I think we are confronted worldwide by a system in
contraction, and it's in this framework that I read with such
interest your 1997 book.
MC Effectively I think you can indeed say that. At this time
capitalism has this tendency of trying to get, or more exactly trying
to provoke, the reduction of the population of certain regions, and
this translates itself into the phenomena you have just mentioned,
whether it be the AIDS pandemic or the massacres. Today, because of
the productivity of labour, which has increased, and of poverty,
which forms a barrier to consumption, there is less and less need for
a poor proletariat. Today, a continent like Africa is not considered
as it once was, as a welcome source of cheap manpower to be exploited
on the spot in the big towns or on the plantations or to be brought
to Europe. Its population has become a burden and a menace. But the
world capitalist system has given itself the means by which to put
pressure on its demographic evolution by making most of the African
countries dependent in the matter of subsistence. The importation of
cheap foodstuffs, produced in the industrialised countries in
conditions of high productivity, often subsidised by exporting and
local governments and even sometimes free, are necessary to contain
food prices and thus keep down the cost of manpower in the towns in
the importing countries. But at the same time, this policy impedes
the development of local agriculture , because it is put in
impossible conditions of 'competition'. This agriculture has gone
backwards everywhere and in some places almost disappeared. Why so
many incurable illnesses in Africa? Why so many continuing masscres
in Africa? I don't say it is deliberately done by capitalism, but it
is a global effect of capitalism, which no longer has need of this
too large population after having sustained its growth and destroyed
its own forms of agriculture.
FC How do you characterise the present wars, those in Liberia, in
Sierra Leone, in the Great Lakes region?
CM That's just the problem which I put to myself and which I am at
present working on. I have to go to Germany for a conference on the
wars in Africa, and my intention (But I would like more evidence and
elements for the work) is to try to make understandable what is at
stake in this other sort of war. Before, it was a matter of colonial
wars. A colonial country made war and conquered a territory in
proportioon to what was colonial power. That sometimes concerned very
important territories. Now, I think it is wars provoked by the
interests of private capitalist companies, which rely on mercenaries,
wars which consist of dividng up territories in proportion to their
strength and their interests. We know for example that De Beers is at
work in the old Congo, tht it still has interests there, that it
deploys mercenaries on its own account within the civil wars in that
country. The same in Angola. Le Monde published an article in which
the Chairman or one of the top people in De Beers admits, even
explains, the implication of this group in the war.

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