Fifty Shades of Capital: Budget cuts

There are many facets of our social reality influenced by global capitalism; this series serves to highlight the ever-expanding market’s effect on our daily lives. From Bon-App to the environment, capitalism has generated numerous negative consequences around the world.

Essential to any capitalist economy, regardless of geography or culture, is a primordial commodity: labor. Without an exploitable labor force, capitalism would shrivel to nothing. At Lawrence, our poorest students’ labor is necessary to the university’s functioning. Fair wages are nearly nonexistent on campus, forcing many to work two, three or even four simultaneous jobs.

This past summer I worked within the facility services paint crew and coated dorm walls in whisper-white paint for two and a half months. This job was working class in nature, but I learned the most about Lawrence’s labor force from my supervisor Mark. Mark was sort of a surrogate grandfather to us, the wide-eyed student workers. I would describe him being as kind as Stanley (and his legendary scoops). Mark had given his time and labor to Lawrence for thirty-some years but was laid off alongside the recent budget cuts. His plan was to retire in two or three years anyway, but for the working class, such a time period can make or break an individual’s financial security. Needless to say, I was not happy with this development.

Mark’s story is common among the aging workforce who are treated as expendable in times of economic hardship. As he used to say, contemplating his early retirement, “In the ‘80s they had a motto to ‘do more with less,’” a sentiment that fits seamlessly with this modern culture of cutting corners. As LarryU faces financial challenges like the invisible hand of the Free Market™, the institution must prioritize some things above others. Do we focus on students? Is sustainability our primary goal? How do we treat the workers that make Lawrence possible? There are no easy answers, but what the school chooses is telling — department budgets are reduced and workers are laid off.

Considering the implications of this issue within capitalism, it is perhaps easier to understand why “unnecessary” labor costs are the first to go. This stems from labor’s ongoing exploitation; the capitalist siphons the surplus value created by their workers, thereby creating profit. It is not from some innate talent that the capitalist derives their wealth, but through their ownership of the means of production — capital, land, money, factories and farms, to name a few — and their advantage over the working class. 

Because they lack the means to produce their own goods —either for subsistence or money — people sell their labor to the capitalist. Workers then take raw materials and fuse it with their labor, subsequently creating a commodity with surplus value. The raw materials, now a commodity, are worth more and so the capitalist sells it in the marketplace. Where does this newly forged value arise from? Certainly not magic, but through exploitation. Yes, the worker is paid less than what they create; otherwise there would be no profit for the capitalist to acquire. So why doesn’t the worker just up and leave? Because they lack the means of production, workers must rely on capitalists to earn money and subsequently purchase life necessities like food, housing, education and water.

Okay, now you can breathe. That was a long explanation, but I summed up one of Marx’s main contributions to a critique of capitalism as concisely as I am able. Obviously, this class conflict between the laborer and the capitalist becomes increasingly complex across myriad cultures and contexts. At Lawrence, the closest equivalent to a capitalist would be the board of trustees or the bureaucratic institution itself. Regardless of who receives the profits and owns the means of production here, though, workers remain situated in the exploitative social relations I described above.

Knowing this, it is perhaps clearer that the capitalist system contains a sinister contradiction: living and breathing people who wish to continue living and breathing must sell their labor, yet capitalists are constantly pressured to pay and hire less and less to maintain a competitive edge. This becomes particularly evident in times of economic crisis, such as the Great Depression or the recession of 2008. Capitalism is not conducive to a happy life for anyone involved.

If we look to the near future, with the increasing popularity of publicly funded college education, Lawrence’s prospects look bleak. The institution is already in debt and works around the clock to maintain revenue. When public universities are free, however, LarryU may take a serious hit. The question is, how will the institution cope? If labor is the first burden to be cut, will a shrinking workforce characterize this campus? How can students feel integrated into a community when staff are laid off every year? And, finally, how long do we have until these cost reducing measures affect even our professors?