Anarchists, like many radicals and Marxists, have a highly critical view of contemporary politics, especially the limited democracy and the lack of representation and accountability of parliament. Although anarchist understanding of ideology is rich, anarchist critiques of economics are relatively sparse although Wayne Price’s The Value Of Radical Theory (AK, 2013) is a good place to start. The global economy is a vast complex that is not fixed but moves wherever capital can prosper and, in order for economics to be less abstract or confusing, it is preferable to look at how it impacts on various aspects of working class life.
1/ The Price Of Bread
We live in a culture that celebrates any new innovation by saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread – which is not only a victory for mundanity but a good starting point for basic economics. The large scale factory production of pre-sliced packaged bread meant cheaper loaves, easier sandwich construction and the redundancy of small artisinal bakeries, although supermarkets also sell ‘artisinal’ bread like sourdough or rye bread. Not only do these supermarkets offer multiple (and multi-seeded) variations of bread, they also engage in ‘more for less,’ where larger white sliced loaves, Big Loaf, are cheaper than smaller unsliced wholewheat loaves. The recent marketing of the ‘Crustless’ loaf is an example of this. A smaller crustless loaf is more expensive than Big Loaf because it needs more labour time and, in order to remove those pesky crusts, an extra stage in the process of production is needed. To pay for the extra time and labour it takes to make a smaller product, the price is elevated and you pay more for the convenience (whilst admitting that cutting your own crusts off is far too complicated for you).
In Marxist terms Big Loaf is the product; the supermarket’s bakery is the means of production; the bakers are labour; and the machinery, i.e., the ovens, mixers, and proving areas, are capital. Newer, cheaper methods of producing Big Loaf are developed and the supermarket invests more money into capital which increases output. Spending more also means that the cost must be recouped either by higher prices. Previous to Big Loaf, bakers had to weigh and sift the flour, prepare the yeast, mix the dough, and bake it. Supermarkets, new technology and processed ingredients meant that this process was no longer necessary and the skilled baker was replaced by less skilled workers.
Depending on who they work for and where, workers will have a different attitudes to the things they produce.
We can identify this by comparing smaller independent bakers to bigger shops. In a nearby village there is a bakery where the bakers work through the night to produce the bread and pastries and customers standing in the morning queue can see them still working in the back, whilst the servers bag up all the fresh produce. When all the bread is sold, the bakery shuts. Usually just after lunchtime. They also have a smaller market stall in town that sells the bread and pastries. Just up from this stall is a bakery chain, Flat Pasty, that has stores all over the UK selling overtly aerated bread, sparsely filled sandwiches and greasy pastry. You can buy the same Flat Pasty in any of their shops, on railway stations, high streets or malls. The workers in Flat Pasty are not bakers, the produce is not made there but trucked in, and people tend to shop there because the food will always be the same.
There is a qualitative difference between the 2 shops. That is, the quality of experience when shopping at the local bakery who bake their own bread, who are part of the local community and have been for many years is different to that of a chain store selling greasy pastry. In Flat Pasty the turnover of staff is significantly higher than at the local bakery, they don’t bake their own bread, and the product is the same wherever you go.
The baker is labour. He operates the means of production which is owned by the capitalist. The capitalist pays the worker hourly in which he bakes Big Loaf bread. The hourly rate plus the cost of ingredients and distribution determines the cost of producing each loaf. However, the capitalist needs to profit from this, so a surplus is added to the overall price of Big Loaf. The baker makes the same loaf in the same way every day. He does not make more money if more bread is sold but he may make considerably less if too few people buy the bread. And, if people decide they don’t like the bread, he is out of a job.
So, 1 factory produced loaf is pretty much the same as the next. Each day the same tasks are required, each week the wages are the same. The artisan has a different relationship to the bread he makes. He may own own the bakery or rent it; he may own the the machinery; he buys the ingredients that suit his situation the best; and he decides what kind of bread he will produce. He has an economical, physical and emotional investment and maybe proud of his bread; he may have a personal interaction with his customers; he may live in the same community. The ‘Big Loaf’ baker is only involved in 1 part of production; he does not determine what kind of bread he makes; and each loaf is the same as the last and mean very little to him personally. He has exchanged his time for money, and his time becomes less valuable the older he gets, he will have less energy to explore his non-work time.