It is amazing what one can notice when a specific lens is fresh in our eyes. This week’s readings on Marx’s Capital have inevitably filtered the way I view the world. If my wife asked to watch Shark Tank with her, I knew not how to avoid its paradoxical gravity; albeit I could see the capitalist doing its work first hand, I also found myself cheering for the contestants to achieve a business partnership that would surely result in some form of exploitation.
The most poignant episode of this recently acquired lens was manifested in a phone conversation with a childhood friend earlier this week. Our typical conversations cover the basic generic questions like “how you’ve been,” etc. When he asked about how I was doing, I could not help but to mention the difficult time I was having with my recent subscription to theory. Normally this is his cue to say “I’ll leave you to it, then” as he proceeds to say his goodbyes. For whatever reason, he asked the question of no return: “how so”?
Better known as Alex “the plumber,” I thought my friend would appreciate a snippet for the irony of his nickname (in the Marxist sense, of course). Still, I had to be cautious. Boredom and irrelevancies are equivalents to Alex “the plumber,” as much as conversations about metaphors and allegories lose their appeal to him beyond the points of symbolic representation. To the best of my appealing abilities, I tried to explain to him Marx’s value of labor (among other concepts), though I may have been employing his ear to see if I could have a better grasp of these concepts myself.
At first, I was impressed by how much Alex “the plumber” actually listened to my long-winded diatribes. I was even more surprised to hear his reaction: thinking himself the exception to the production of surplus value (that is, selling his labor for the capitalist), he explained how recently he did a job for a lady whose husband supervises a number of Walmart stores in the area—or so he found out during the course of the job. “The plumber” confessed that learning this detail prompted him to charge his customer almost twice as much the amount as he normally would for similar jobs. (He is the smartest plumber I know).
While trying to avoid a sermon, I explained to him that his labor is still subject to exploitation, and that the fact that he charged a larger amount on this specific occasion was only one sign for the average value of his labor. I did not want push the issue any further, lest I abused his patient attention. My only rebuttal was to point out how shopping at Walmart—though seemingly saving money—was in turn helping pay for his client’s high salary. I thought Alex “the plumber” would then think about what his overpriced bill meant in the larger picture, but he seemed ever more satisfied—if justified—for his deed.
This conversation with Alex “the plumber” made me think about the ways we view our labor and to consider the price we sell it for: what an irony it is that it essentially shapes our identity. (By the way, most of my friends including Alex “the plumber” know me simply as “the Professor”—the kind of emphasis they put to the nickname reveals that it is just as much a career label as it is a comedic adjective).