Murder and the rate of return – an editorial

In a footnote to Volume 1 of Capital, first published in 1867, Karl Marx quoted from the 19th century English labor leader T.J. Dunning:

“With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10% will ensure its employment anywhere; 20% certain will produce eagerness; 50% positive audacity; 100% will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300% and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.”

May Day 2020 outside Staten Island Amazon warehouse.

Today, 150+ years of class struggle have mitigated the effects of capitalist lust for profit. Workers have protections in union contracts and in legislation, such as minimum wage, child labor laws, workplace safety regulations and the right to organize.

But periodically in the course of events, disasters occur that shred with tornado-like force any pretense of “caring capitalism.” The Dec. 10 tornadoes were such a disaster.

While the owners of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, may not have put their own lives at risk, they had no scruples about risking the lives of their employees. At least 15 workers at the factory who wanted to go home to safety were threatened with discharge. The tornado tore through the building, killing eight and seriously injuring many more. In a lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages, workers’ attorneys charge the company with showing “flagrant indifference” to their safety. (NBC News, Dec. 18)

The owners’ “profits first” mindset has meant low wages, long hours and what employee and father-of-two David Hollowell called “sweatshop” conditions. Many of the workers are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. Mayfield hires people as temporary help, laying them off before their probationary period ends — only to hire them back as new probationaries. Workers have been fired for being epileptic, overweight or pregnant. Mayfield was previously fined for workplace safety violations. The 245 workers make around $8-10 an hour. 

No crime too great in pursuit of profit

Dunning’s critique of capitalism was directed at companies similar in size to Mayfield. But the “flagrant indifference” to workers is not confined to small “cockroach capitalists.” The six deaths in the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois — owned by centibillionaire Jeff Bezos — confirm the point emphasized in Marx’s footnote: that capitalists will stop at nothing to raise their bottom line. 

This is, in fact, the root cause of the climate catastrophe that has led to an increase in the number and severity of tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and other disasters that threaten workers’ lives.

It is past time for humanity — through revolutionary struggle — to rid itself of the murderous, exploitive, profit-driven system called capitalism.

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