By Derrick Crowe
August 12, 2019
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
This is a fairly common remark in political spaces, usually made in good faith and in reference to the need to increase representation for marginalized groups so that they can have a say in the decisions that shape their lives. That sentiment is fine as far as it goes, but I think we need to examine it a little bit further and think about what it tells us about our systems of power.
In my previous post, I walked readers through Martin Hägglund’s This Life, a book that argues for a secular faith and an embrace of democratic socialism. At its core, the book’s argument is that your life is not a means to an end. Your earthly life is not a means to attain an eternal salvation, nor is your time valuable solely for the amount of value you can add to business’s bottom line. Your time, all of it, both the time spent in the realm of necessity where you obtain your survival needs and your free time, is valuable. And, in fact, if we value freedom, your socially available free time should be the basis for our concept of value, period. You–your finite life, your finite time–matter.
What it means to be “on the menu” under capitalism is to be in possession of a valuable, finite life that is valued only as a means to an end–that end being profit. Your finite life time, your life itself, along with the environment that sustains your life, is being transformed into commodities to create the growth on which capitalism depends. Being “on the menu” is a little more literal than one would like to believe, because it means in a fundamental way that your life, your time, is being eaten up.
What it means to be “at the table,” then, is to be a capitalist extracting profit by combining capital with socially necessary labor time to make a profit. You’re the one driving, guiding, and making more efficient the commodification of the environment and the worker. In the logic of the analogy, you are the one doing the eating.
And as the metaphor makes clear, there are only two options here: at the table or on the menu. The threat of unemployment forces the worker to put her finite time–in essence, her very life–on the menu. The threat of being subjected to wage labor keeps the capitalist at the table. It’s dinner in a locked room. And even getting more folks at the table, or spreading the meal around more equitably via redistributive policies, doesn’t break the basic logic or the essential horror of the situation. As long as socially necessary labor time is the basis of value in our system, as long as we are not willing to stop serving the spiritual cause of profit instead of the cause of freedom, that door to the dining room stays locked with us inside, and those are our choices. At the table, or on the menu. Eat, or be eaten.
The way out, according to Hägglund, is to reorient our measure of value away from increasing profit to increasing free time, i.e. getting our lives off that table to begin with.
The choice isn’t socialism or barbarism. It’s socialism or cannibalism.