I almost got a PhD. This statement is both pathetic, in that it is a statement about failure, and funny, because academic failure is funny in a self-deprecating and hopeless way.
The whole process was stupid and I’m certain that it took me being stupid to set the whole thing in motion. But it’s also kind of fucked up, inasmuch as it’s hard to imagine any faculty not knowing that the job market is terrible. Academic programs are vampiric, but instead of blood they drink enthusiasm.
I crashed and burned, which was miserable, and now I won’t even be able to teach at a community college, which was my very modest aspiration. Ho hum. It’s rare that people get what they really want. If they’re lucky they’ll get what they’ll settle for.
My chief academic interest was drugs. This was also my chief interest outside of school. I was naively trying to look at how power and exploitation in the illicit drug sector play out in the first decade of the second millenia, so I could write impenetrable articles for single digit audiences in ludicrously priced academic journals.
I was certain that illicit drugs were a strategically important commodity, and I was also certain that they were a necessary part of people’s ability to get up and go about their lives. Further, they were politically important, inasmuch as they provided a framework in which certain groups of people were grievously and violently fucked over and controlled. I remain confident that all of this is true.
Therefore, I wanted to express my thinking on illicit drug markets, with some explanation as to why I think any of it works. It’s a Marxist argument, which I think is relevant, so don’t tune out and turn on Fox News or MSNBC just yet.
There are some central tenets of Marx’ thought. In brief, the source of value, leading to profit via a number of mechanisms, is human labor, which transfers value from a living human being into a commodity, and every commodity, from cotton to machines, carries this value.
I think that what is below is a simpler but longer explanation of how this works.
John is a regular guy. He works at a paper mill. He has a beer after work. He’s tired of life and all he eats are cheese sandwiches. He has basic cable and that’s it. John’s neighbors live better than he does, but only by a hair. In fact, everyone’s eating cheese sandwiches and watching Simpsons reruns. The things that keep John alive for his next day of work all contain value deposited in them by people working in other places, and John’s labor contains this value, because John’s ability to show up at the paper mill is also a thing that gets made, by cheese and cable and beer.
How does a capitalist make a profit in this scheme where the minutes, hours and years of a human life make up every single thing? If they raise prices they’ll run into problems in the long term. Another capitalist could undercut them, or they would all enter into a spiral of inflation where things become ever more expensive. And the paper baron still needs John. If John can’t afford the things he needs to survive he will either die or demand higher wages. Not having a market is a big problem for the paper baron, and an increase in wages is as well- he’ll either be forced to raise prices further or cut into his profits.
So if he can’t turn a profit by buying low and selling high then he’ll have to turn elsewhere. He’ll look to the factory, and to John, who is constipated from cheese, has been drinking way more beer than he cares to admit, and can’t stop wondering how the Simpsons went so far downhill after season seven.
He might be able to speed up his machine or use shittier pulp, but either thing will cause his machine to break down more quickly.
The machine John works at is dead, or at least not alive. All the value that it contains is there already. It can’t absorb any more, and it can’t summon more into existence. And the paper from China, that costs less and occasionally has the finger of a human child in it, well, every other paper baron is getting it there too. He has to look elsewhere.
That’s where John comes in. John’s workday is ten hours long, but the things he needs to stay alive and willing to drag his sorry ass through the motions only takes eight hours of other people’s work to produce. John works two hours more than all this crap that he gets out of bed for. John can work longer and harder and more efficiently, unlike the machine. John’s sad life, still comprised of cheese and beer and cable, produces more than it consumes.
But there comes a time when John wants more out of life. He wants prestige television. He wants beer that comes in glass bottles instead of in Natural Ice Light. He wants cheddar on whole grain. He and the other people at that paper milldem and a dollar more an hour. It is a brutal labor struggle. Paper partisans club them at the gate, using the strikers’ own “Cheddar, Sam Adams and HBO” signs against them. The strike is victorious and the workers win their additional dollar an hour.
The paper baron doesn’t give a shit about the quality of cheese or beer and he watches Amazon Prime which is for smart people. The extra dollar cuts down on the amount of value he realizes from their additional two hours of work. He begins docking them for bathroom breaks and he’s figured out a way to pressure them into working an additional ten minutes a day off the clock, but it’s not enough. He invests in a machine, the Backbreaker, to speed them up. After this he’s making a lot more paper, and there haven’t even been any industrial accidents, which, while adding some excitement to an otherwise boring day, cause ruinous stoppages.
So, now the machine is making the plebes work faster, thereby creating more paper. The workers transfer the same amount of labor over a far greater amount of paper and since the paper baron is ahead of the curve with the Backbreaker he can charge the same amount for the greater volume of paper.
But, he looks at this books and utters a regretful ‘Oh, shit’. His production costs have changed. While he’s making a greater amount of paper, each of them has a smaller proportion of labor and a greater amount of machinery. The amount of labor embodied in every piece of paper dwindles, and while the paper baron’s magnitude of profit increases, his rate of profit dwindles.
Were this true across the board, and not only the paper barons but the beer and cheese and entertainment barons increased their use of machines, over the long term there will be an ever lower rate of profit across the entirety of the capitalist economy.
But these titans of industry live in a big world. They’re not chained to the cheese-eating shores they were born on.
They’ve got an entire world of commodities, labor and money to draw upon. While the back-breaker is the norm for paper production, there are other places in the world where paper plebes don’t consume nearly as much beer, cable and cheese. Paper production in these places doesn’t use a machine, and there’s a far more brutal police state in these places. By moving the money invested in domestic paper production he can restore his rate of profit and invest elsewhere, perhaps in industries with tremendous magnitudes of profit at a lower rate. These higher rate-of-profit investments, on the whole, equalize the lower-rate/higher magnitude endeavors with higher rate/lower magnitude sectors. Over the course of things, absent crisis or new sources of profit the rate of profit declines, theoretically to a point at which it can no longer be measured.
Stated simply, there needs to be a regular injection of sweated labor into the capitalist economy, or it needs to fall apart for a while to erase that extra cheese dollar, or it needs to be stolen from outside of the formal system.
The means by which the capitalist economy was born was through a looting and pillaging of the pre-capitalist world, extemporaneous with the enclosure of the commons in Western Europe and a brutal colonization of the rest of the world. All those people and places were removed from the systems of a prior age, landing in this one fully formed with a price tag affixed.
We live in a time of incredible productivity, technological marvels, and brutal exploitation. Amazon workers watch Jeff Bezos make trips to the stars while they navigate the threat of homelessness and fuck up their kidneys because they’re not allowed to piss. Bezos’ amazing life is impossible without their awful ones.
But if one assumes that the Marxian schema is correct, then miserable lives are necessary. Not only is Bezos no longer able to ride his giant cock into the sky, but the whole system threatens to grind to a halt in the face of the balance of sweated and dead labor shifting.
This is where drugs come in.
I first became interested in the economic importance of drugs when, much to my dismay, I realized how expensive they are. I sat, utterly trashed, and considered how it was that easily and cheaply produced commodities cost so much.
This is a place where the dominant paradigm winds up arguing that the conception of the functioning of the economy, stated earlier, is correct, albeit without any realization that they’re doing so.
Everyone is willing to say that drugs are expensive because they’re illegal. Okay. That doesn’t really get us anywhere. Drilling in deeper, the statement will inevitably be made that it’s because they cross international borders. This is getting us somewhere. And, they might add, they have to compensate for seizures of their commodities.
This is closer to being interesting and insightful, but it’s committing a cardinal sin of neo-classical economics by focusing on pricing rather than production.
The value composition of drugs is our eye through the keyhole. While every substance that is an illicit psychoactive drug has its own interesting route to market, a general and extremely simplified schema of, say, heroin goes like this: A small-holder produces poppy and harvests raw opium. It is sold to a wholesaler. Heroin is extracted. It passes through a number of national boundaries, some via bribery, some via a treacherous overland/oversea route. It winds up in the U.S. and then splits again, sold on to regional and then local distributors, and finally to the consumer.
Due to its illegality, these commodities are indeed regularly seized or destroyed, and the workers transporting them subject to arrest and imprisonment.
When we talk about the value composition of drug commodities, we need to consider the work processes involved in their production. As you might imagine, an Afghan opium producer is not a single grower but generally a network of family members. You can bet your ass that they’re not making a ton of money, and when we consider the fact that eradication efforts are part of the job they have to expend a great deal of labor for each unit of opium..
The product leaves their possession and gets processed, at which point it departs, crossing numerous national boundaries, guided by numerous tiers of couriers, until it arrives in the United States, at which point it will split further into local distribution networks.
When we talk about the value composition of a commodity we are referring to the socially necessary labor time that is required to bring it to market. Thus, in the event of a drought, for example, an increase in agricultural prices doesn’t reflect the scarcity of a crop, but the increased amount of work required to produce it.
For illicit drug commodities, patterns of policing influence value composition profoundly, as the amount of labor embodied in them is not merely the commodities passage through smuggling and distribution networks, but also the labor that is embodied in seized drugs.
There are other things to consider in offering this conception: The work relationships of the illicit drug trade are extremely unequal and exploitative, and it is absolutely the case that drug workers can get ripped off, cheated, and in some instances simply killed in lieu of being paid. As well, in instances in which drug workers are interdicted their payment is forfeit.
There is another fairly arcane and maybe erroneous thought that I have in regard to this, that being that it may be the case that we could consider the criminal penalties that drug proles are subject to to be implicated in the value composition of these commodities.
Meanwhile, the value realized in the drug trade flows into the official ledgers of international finance with a wink of the eye on the part of the banking sector.
I also think that this is born out by the phenomenon attendant in legal marijuana markets. Prices have dropped precipitously, and I think there is a strong argument to be made that this is less an outcome of changing market dynamics, and far more the case that it arises out of a steep decline in the necessary labor time involved in its production.
All of this is to say that the illicit sectors of the economy are constantly pumping surplus value into and out of the flow of global capital at a profoundly steep rate of profit, and if the Marxian schema holds true then it is the case that this sector serves to buoy all of industry, holding the rate of profit up and making this entire nightmare appear more solvent, and less violent.
So there you go. This is it. This is the only thing I figured out in three years of smoking joints and crying on my bedroom floor. Totally worth it.