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The Ghosts of Karl Marx and Edward Abbey

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. For many years he taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Longer Hours and Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), all published by Monthly Review Press.


My wife Karen and I were on the road, traveling around the United States, for 150 days. We left Portland, Oregon on April 30, 2004, and over the next five months, we drove about 9,000 miles, through sixteen states. We visited thirteen national parks, seven national monuments, and towns large and small. We walked on streets and hiked on trails; we talked to people; we read local newspapers and watched local television stations; we shopped in local markets; and we observed as much as we could the economics, politics, and ecology in the places we stayed. What follows are some of my impressions.

The ghosts of Karl Marx and Edward Abbey haunt the contemporary United States. Marx needs no introduction to readers of this magazine, but perhaps Abbey does. Edward Abbey was born in 1927 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a small town about thirty miles from where I was born. He spent some of his youth on a hardscrabble farm in the nearby tiny village of Home, Pennsylvania, but he lived most of his adult life in the desert and canyon country of the Southwest. He was a novelist, essayist, poet, and a radical environmentalist. Among his best works are Desert Solitaire, an account of a year he spent as a park ranger at Arches National Monument (now a national park) in Moab, Utah, and The Monkey Wrench Gang, the novel which inspired a generation of militant environmentalists.

Marx argued that capitalist societies tended to exhibit poles of wealth and misery, with each pole tightly connected to the other. This prediction has been dismissed by mainstream thinkers, who argue that while there might have been some truth to it in capitalism’s early years, the advanced capitalist countries have shown that all boats tend to rise on the tide of the system’s incredible economic growth. However, if we look at the United States today, nearly 140 years after the onset of full-scale capitalism in the 1870s, we see that Marx’s prediction still has a lot of life in it.

Marx was speaking of relative misery, that is, how those at the bottom compared to those at the top. Workers create profit by their labor, and the capitalists take this profit because they own the workplaces. If the workers are not organized, employers will squeeze more and more profit from their labor, and the workers will become relatively worse off over time. Growing inequality is therefore the consequence of uncontested employer power. Other things being equal, there is no limit to rising inequality except the natural limits imposed by the inability of workers to minimally sustain themselves. Of course, if workers are organized, both at their workplaces and politically, they can and have placed social limits on the growth of inequality.

Today, the power of capital in the United States is more and more uncontested. Labor unions continue to hemorrhage members, and they exert a very limited power politically. The state is more firmly in the hands of employers than it has been in seventy years. Property rights reign supreme in the law, and capital is pretty much free to do what it wants, whether that means firing workers trying to organize unions or moving operations to a low-wage venue in another country. Workers are becoming more insecure, without allies or organizations, and slowly but surely losing the social securities won by hard struggle many years ago.

The facts are readily available to show that relative misery is growing in the United States. We now have reasonably good data on the distribution of household income going back to 1913 (A household is a physical space in which people live, excluding institutions such as nursing homes and prisons). By 2000, the income share of the richest 1 percent of households was about 20 percent, its highest level since just before to the Great Depression. It has been rising since the mid-1970s when it was just half this high. The rise in the share of the richest .01 percent (a hundredth of the richest 1 percent) has risen even more dramatically, from well under 1 percent of total household income in the mid-1970s to a little over 3 percent today. Much the same can be said about the distribution of wealth—people’s stock of assets as opposed to the yearly flows of income they receive. The richest 1 percent of households own a third of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent have just 16 percent, and this gap has been growing for at least two decades, although it diminished during the recent stock market crash.

Both Marx and Abbey understood that capitalism devastates the environment. Abbey said, in reference to the environment, “Like my old man always says, capitalism sounds good in theory but it just doesn’t work; look around you and see what it has done to our country. And what it is going to do to our country—if we let it.” Abbey documented in his essays and novels the destruction of the unique canyons, deserts, and mountains of the Southwest by the mining industry, agribusiness, urban sprawl, and the automobile. He had a good grasp of the fact that the growth which is at the heart of capitalism is incompatible with environmental health. He also understood that growth is not just a requirement of the economic system. It is also a deeply embedded part of capitalism’s ideology. Senator Diane Feinstein, when she was mayor of San Francisco, said that she could not imagine the city not growing. Abbey had harsh words for this statement.

The evidence of environmental destruction is as easy to come by as is that for inequality. Consider just a few facts. More than 100 million persons in the United States live in urban areas where the air is officially classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as unsafe to breathe. In a world awash in toxic substances, the United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, produces over 70 percent of the world’s hazardous waste. Over a million children in the United States suffer from lead poisoning.

Needless to say, inequality and environmental devastation are connected to one another.

Those at the bottom of the income distribution are bound to be those most affected by pollution, congestion, pesticides, and bad water. The rich can buy their way to relatively clean air and peaceful neighborhoods. Great inequality is deleterious to democracy and precludes any sense of common ground or need to develop social solutions to problems. Those at the bottom are so harried by the problems of daily life and so alienated from those at the top that they are likely simply to abstain from politics, leaving the well-to-do to make the government an agent of their will. Those at the bottom are forced into ways of living that are harmful to the environment, while those at the top see nature merely as something to be bought and sold.

I am an economist, so I am used to seeing the world in terms of data. But data alone do not satisfy most people. It is one thing to make the arguments I have just made, but it is another to have them resonate enough in people’s minds to make them come to realize that the facts are part of their lives. To give the facts real bite, it is necessary to connect them to the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps I can do this by describing a few of the things we observed on our cross-country journey.

Signs of growing inequality are everywhere in the United States. I have written a detailed travelogue for the Monthly Review website (www.monthlyreview.org), and I have noted many of these there. But here I note two especially stark indicators. First, there is an incredible and growing distance between the housing of the rich and the poor. The great increase in the incomes of the top 20 percent, and even more so the richest 5 and 1 percent, of families, combined with low mortgage rates, has driven up the price of housing, excluding those with even moderate incomes from buying anything but modest homes. The rich, however, are not deterred by high prices, and their high and growing incomes have allowed them to buy or to build ever larger houses. For those at the bottom, there is no new public housing, and everywhere housing subsidies have declined and are under attack, so they must live where they can. What we end up with is a kind of housing apartheid.

No matter where you go, the well-to-do have isolated their living spaces from everyone else’s. Either they are living in gated or otherwise guarded communities or they are buying enormous tracts of land and building bigger and bigger mansions on them, sometimes complete with private roads and security guards. Often the growing political power of those with money allows them to obtain, through the lobbying of real estate and banking interests, large tax breaks for “developing” the land. Sometimes, as was the case in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon, tax breaks were given not only to the developers who converted warehouses into swank condominiums but to the buyers as well.

Consider the towns of Florence, Oregon and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Florence is on the central Oregon coast, the northern gateway town to the fifty-mile stretch of sand dunes which hug the coast south to Coos Bay. Florence used to be a small fishing town, and there are still working boats at the dock on the Siuslaw River in the Old Town, not far from the gorgeous art deco style bridge on Highway 101, built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Like a lot of small working-class towns, Florence has a nice feel to it, easy-going and friendly. But the surrounding area is growing, attracting people with more money who think they will enjoy the slower pace of life. A drive to the beach next to the north jetty where the river meets the Pacific Ocean takes you past several gated communities. I was struck by these; I wondered why gates were needed in such a place. But income disparity is growing, as evidenced by the recent construction of a casino, a sure sign that good jobs are rare, and no doubt the wealthier newcomers feel safer behind gates. I note in passing that we also saw a gated community in the dirt poor and dusty southern California desert town of Twentynine Palms.

Santa Fe will be more familiar to readers. It is a much larger town than Florence. It is the state capital of New Mexico, with a reputation for sophistication that attracts thousands of visitors annually to its opera, Indian market, and museums. It is the second largest art market in the United States; only New York City’s is larger. Along Canyon Road, there are more than one hundred art dealers. In the downtown, there are several excellent art museums, including one dedicated to the works of Georgia O’Keefe, many fine restaurants, and at least a half dozen smart hotels. The town’s geographical setting is glorious, with easily reachable mountains rising to over 13,000 feet to the north and east. Much of the year the weather is warm and sunny.

Not many people live in Santa Fe’s downtown; we could not find a drugstore or a chain grocery store there. But if you take a hike in any of the surrounding hills, houses can be seen that boggle the mind. One morning we began a hike at St. John’s College, located east of downtown. This college is the sister school to the one of the same name in Annapolis, Maryland; both are famous for their focus on a “Great Books” curriculum. We parked in a college lot and after crossing two arroyos, we headed up a hill toward Atalaya Mountain. We came to a private road which entered a very posh gated community, filled with large adobe-style houses, probably priced at upwards of one million dollars. As we ascended the mountain, we came upon isolated homes, each more spectacular than the one before. These were gigantic adobe structures, containing upwards of 10,000 square feet of living space plus various outbuildings, gardens, stables, and swimming pools. As we discovered in our travels, these estates are often not occupied year round but are just one of several homes of the owners. And as a perusal of the real estate ads in the New York Times Magazine shows, such estates can cost as much as ten million dollars.

The southern entrance to Santa Fe is Cerillos Road, a congested and ugly ten-mile stretch of strip malls, motels, businesses, and retail stores. It is on the streets behind this road that one encounters the houses and apartments of the poorly paid workers who service tourists in restaurants and downtown hotels and shops. We learned this from a clerk in a bookstore who told us that many service workers earned the minimum wage or slightly above and found it very difficult to find adequate housing in Santa Fe. Still poorer housing can be found in the predominantly Indian villages close to the town. Although we did not observe this in Santa Fe, it is not uncommon to see entire families living in the cheapest motels. Unable to find housing, these migrants seeking work hole up in motels hoping for something better. I had thought that these people must be mainly immigrants or displaced manufacturing workers. However, a recent article in the Washington Post described a new phenomenon: highly skilled but displaced information technology workers living in motels, often with their families, while they completed a temporary job assignment. One worker complained that the $58 per day he was paying for a motel room was eating deeply into his wage, much as a city cab driver might worry about meeting his daily cab leasing and gas expenditures or a criminal gang member might wonder how he was going to meet his weekly quota.

Those upper-income households which are not rich but still have considerable income are moving to what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the “exurbs.” Santa Fe does not really have exurbs, that is, areas removed even from the suburbs and not necessarily connected to a city. Such regions are, contrary to Brooks’ panegyric to them as incubators of new technology, rather lifeless places of expensive tract housing sitting on treeless lots and without much in the way of social amenities. Employers are building office complexes and other workplaces in the exurbs, far away from the higher taxes and unions of the cities or even the older suburbs. Exurbs can be seen all around the country. We saw them near Albuquerque, New Mexico, sprawling endlessly away from the city center, as well as along Interstate 5 in Oregon and California.

The second striking feature of inequality in the United States is its racial and ethnic face. While there are, of course, exceptions, in the United States today, poor means black or brown and rich means white. This is something that I am certain most white people fail to notice. When we lived in Portland and pointed out to people that there was no diversity in the city, they would say, “Well, I never thought of that.” We noticed right away that the only people of color in every upper-income neighborhood were the Mexican gardeners and construction laborers.

Before I give some examples of the racial and ethnic divide overlapping growing inequality, let us look at some numbers. Median family income (in 2003 dollars) for whites in 2002 was $55,885, but for blacks it was $34,293 and for Hispanics $34,968. While 20.4 percent of white workers earned a wage that would not support a family of four at the poverty level of income, for black workers it was 30.4 percent and for Hispanics 39.8 percent. Since the middle of the 1970s, the average unemployment rate for whites is a little over 5 percent. For blacks it is over 13 percent, and for Hispanics it is more than 9 percent. These unemployment differences understate the true differences because relatively more blacks and Hispanics are out of the labor force than is true for whites. For example, blacks comprise only a bit more than 11 percent of all workers, but they represent nearly half of the 2.2 million persons in our prisons and jails. The rapid increase in the rate of black imprisonment over the past three decades has had a devastating impact on the integrity of black communities. If we look at the wealth data, the racial gap is startling. In 2001, the median net worth (assets minus debts) of black households was $10,700, compared to $106,400 for white households. This includes all wealth, of which houses are a major component for all but the wealthy. If we include only financial wealth (stocks, bonds, and cash), median black wealth is a mere $1,100; for whites it is $42,100. Thirty-one percent of black households have zero or negative net wealth, while only 14 percent of white households do. Data for Hispanic household wealth is not available, but it is surely much lower than that for whites.

The racial and ethnic divide can be seen everywhere and in virtually all aspects of daily life. The fine houses we saw and the gated communities were invariably inhabited by whites. The people we saw living in motels were persons of color. The shabbier grocery stores we visited were mostly frequented by people of color, but if we went to an upscale market such as Whole Foods, New Frontiers, or Wild Oats, the clientele was typically white. We often shopped in ethnic markets, and unlike places such as Manhattan where such markets attract a heterogeneous group of shoppers, in towns like Santa Fe, Taos, or Flagstaff, we might be the only white persons in the store. In downtown areas, Hispanics, American Indians, and blacks commingle with the tourists (on the streets at least; if there is a museum exhibit or a symphony concert, the audience will be overwhelmingly white), but the fancier suburbs and exurbs are mostly white preserves.

The racial and ethnic divide becomes a chasm when it comes to the work people do. It is a safe bet that if there is a low-wage, low-status job, a person of color will be working at it. Throughout the West, we saw prisoners doing various types of road work, under the supervision of armed guards. A white worker here was as rare as rain in Death Valley. We stayed in nearly thirty motels, several for a week and one for twenty-two days. So we saw hundreds of desk clerks, maintenance personnel, and housekeepers. It was very much more likely that a desk clerk, the person who first meets the guest, will be white than a housekeeper. In fact, in the five months we traveled, we met exactly one white housekeeper (not counting the national parks, where white Eastern European young people without English are recruited by the parks’ concessionaires and then set, often against their wishes, to cleaning rooms). Nearly all the rest were from Latin America. All were women. Most spoke little or no English, and I am sure that many were in the United States illegally. It was not uncommon for them to bring their small children to work and for a coworker to watch the kids when she was not working.

We had an encounter with the one white housekeeper we met. We were staying at a motel in an isolated, very small and uniformly white town in Utah. We were there for seven days, and we noticed that our room was not being cleaned. The bed was made but nothing else was done. We are sensitive to what housekeepers have to put up with; we always leave a gratuity, and we make sure that the room is tidy and uncluttered before we leave each morning. But we felt that a room ought to be cleaned, so after three days of living in a dirty room, we asked the housekeeper if she had cleaned our room, and when she said yes, we invited her into our room to show her that it had not been cleaned. Then she said, “Oh, we don’t do cleaning.” We were taken aback and asked her why not. She said that she did not like to interfere with people’s belongings. We said that we had put all our things away, even repacking our toiletries, so there was nothing to interfere with. In a huff, she said she would return to clean. She did, making a halfhearted effort to clean the floor and sink. We noticed that she was dressed in a completely inappropriate manner for cleaning rooms, wearing a dressy long-sleeve blouse and pants. She was so angry that she complained about us to the owners, a remarkable thing since the owners were very apologetic and told us that they were always telling the housekeepers that they had to clean the rooms. What was going on here? I am sure that this event had everything to do with race. This was a white town; Hispanic immigrants hadn’t arrived here yet. So, only local white women could be recruited. They would do the work, no doubt out of economic necessity. But it was clear that they considered this work beneath them. It was not “white” work, and they would not demean themselves by working hard like their darker-skinned sisters. And unlike the Hispanic housekeepers we met everywhere else, these white women could not be easily replaced, because there was not a ready pool of surplus laborers to take their place. White skin privilege runs deep, and it thoroughly divides the working class.

What was true in the motels was also true in restaurants. Where it is possible to recruit them, as it is in our national parks, waiters are more likely to be white, while kitchen dishwashers and cooks are seldom white. Laundromat attendants, convenience store and gas station workers, grocery store clerks, baggers, and stockers, retail store workers, gardeners, nonunion construction laborers, farm workers—whites are very seldom seen in these jobs. In the West, Hispanics, American Indians, and blacks do the dirty work. And I might add, they live in the worst housing, are most likely to be homeless, and inhabit most of the prison cells.

We ended our journey in Miami Beach, Florida. This is a good place to observe both inequality and the racial divide. We often walked down the beach to the pier at the southern end of town. Here we watched the giant container ships delivering cargo to the port at Miami and carrying cargo out to the far corners of the earth. We also observed the huge cruise ships taking tourists to exotic places. The travelers waved to the people on the pier, and at night the ships looked like decorated mansions as they made their way out to sea. However, underlying this tranquil scene is a reality of harsh and dangerous work. These ships usually register in countries such as Liberia and are therefore immune to U.S. labor law. The employees who do the most onerous work are invariably people of color, typically from poor countries. Their pay is low, and their hours are long. If they get severely injured on the job and need hospital care, they are often forced to fly back to their home countries for care even if better care is available in the United States. One worker from a Caribbean nation slipped on a kitchen floor while carrying a large pot of oil. The oil severely burned his leg and foot. He was taken out of a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska and forced to take several flights home. He called his mother in desperation and managed at a stopover in Miami to contact a lawyer his mother knew of through a friend. This lawyer managed to get him care in Miami, and then sued the shipping company. The company retaliated by contacting the immigration authorities who promptly deported the man.

“Development” and “growth” are the watchwords of capitalism in the United States. Environmental protection is pretty much an afterthought; when this conflicts with growth, growth wins. Two things you can’t miss if you drive around the country are urban-suburban-exurban sprawl, heavily subsidized by the government, and private use of public lands. Examples are almost too numerous to mention. Los Angeles is everybody’s poster child for sprawl. It is quite an experience to drive in and around this city, seeing everywhere clogged highways and tangles of freeway entrance and exit ramps, close by endless unsightly housing developments, the whole mess made possible by a hundred years of publicly-financed dam-building and river-ruining. The city and its suburbs extend far into the deserts north and south. Once beyond these there are towns and development everywhere, all suffering from smog and industrial pollution. One hundred and fifty miles southeast of Los Angeles, just outside Twentynine Palms, is the relatively pristine desert of Joshua Tree National Park. From the top of Keys View (the highest point in the park accessible by car), the resort town of Palm Springs, with its hundred golf courses shamelessly wasting water, is visible. Visible too is the brown Los Angeles smog snaking its way through a mountain pass, corrupting even this special place. The insanity of a megalopolis in the desert is further brought home by something else which can be see—the San Andreas Fault.

Growth run wild can also be witnessed in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Denver, Colorado. Albuquerque’s population has quadrupled, to about 800,000, since the 1950s, and it now spreads out interminably from the intersection of Interstates 15 and 40. There are now nineteen Albuquerque freeway exits, and residents think still more are needed to accommodate the ceaseless traffic. There is just no way to go from one place to another in this city without getting on an interstate highway. What seems like an infinity of suburbs and exurbs crowd out the desert, filled with developments of cheaply-built but expensive homes on treeless lots baking in the sun and running now almost all the way to Santa Fe, sixty miles north. Perhaps hidden in one of the nondescript industrial parks which pockmark the landscape in the exurbs are the scientists developing nanotechnology about whom David Brooks gushes when he writes of the exurbs as an exciting new frontier. But even technological advance does not seem worth the social cost of such land-destroying, water-wasting, and air-polluting ugliness.

Denver, just a few hundred miles north of Albuquerque on Interstate 15, is another mess of relentless traffic and highway building. North of the city, farmlands are being rapidly converted into faceless housing developments. The juxtaposition of farms and housing tracts, again on lots without trees and with houses so similar that it must sometimes be difficult to find your own on a dark night, is difficult to absorb. However, it will not be long before the farms have disappeared altogether and Denver goes on forever. The logic of capitalism, which today is nearly as unfettered as it was in the 1920s, dictates that land will be put to whatever use can generate the most profits. Economically-strapped farmers will sell their fields to developers who will make a fortune, shared with construction companies and politicians on the take, building new exurbs. Governments will accommodate them with new zoning laws, more highways, and subsidized industrial parks.

In theory the public lands of the United States belong to all the people. In reality, many public lands might as well be private property, and much public land is always under threat of being sold to private developers. Throughout the West, cattle graze on public lands irrigated with public water and in the process ruin the terrain and pollute rivers and streams in an extraordinarily socially inefficient operation. Communication towers pollute the peaks of publicly-owned mountains; high above Albuquerque near Sandia Peak there is a mass of such towers called without irony by the government a “steel forest.” Even in the national parks, cell phone towers are being constructed so that the tourists can chat with their friends and tell them what wonderful sights they are seeing. Signs in our national forests proclaim that these are lands of “many uses.” Odd that so many of these uses are commercial. Roads are rapidly being built in these forests so that lumber companies may soon log out the trees. Today mines and wells can be dug from outside public lands at an angle going into them, and this is fine by the government. The running of most of the national parks has from their beginnings been the province of private enterprise. The Xanterra Corporation (formerly one of the “big five” sugar overlords of Hawaii) today has the concessions at several parks and actually owns part of the water rights at Death Valley and property rights in the historic buildings of Grand Canyon National Park. We have not even been able to prevent the use of snowmobiles (promoted heavily by businesses in West Yellowstone and other gateway towns) in Yellowstone National Park, despite the obvious damage they do to the environment. Gate attendants at the park now have to wear masks to protect themselves from the pollution caused by the machines.

The usurpation of public lands by private interests is very likely greater at state and local levels where business can exert enormous influence on public officials and where the latter are more willing subjects of influence peddling. Virginia Key is an oasis of natural beauty and tranquility offshore from but part of the crowded city of Miami. There are unspoiled beaches and self-guided nature trails. The beaches here were the first ones to which black people had access in Miami. But developers would love to build luxury condominiums here, and the city stands to make a lot of money if it sells the land. A volunteer guide at the old lighthouse on Key Biscayne told us that a compromise was in the works. If history is any guide, rich folks will soon have another place to live. Once capital gets its foot in the door, it does not tolerate compromises. A few miles away at Miami Beach, a large and beautiful public beach is routinely used as private property by the wealthy. In late November 2004, jewelry magnate David Yurman and his wife Sybil had a warehouse-size tent, designed to look like a chic lounge, constructed on the beach, complete with several industrial air conditioners, to house a lavish dinner party in honor of the charitable work of the Cuban-born gusano singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio. A few yards away, homeless people tried to get some sleep.

I have reached one major conclusion from what I have witnessed. The radical politics of the future must make inequality and environmental destruction its centerpiece. Both of these phenomena are so much a part of the nature of capitalism that it is hard to talk about them without making at least a partial indictment of the system. Their consequences are thoroughly harmful to the health, welfare, and happiness of the majority of people. They lend an ugliness to daily life that is becoming increasingly hard to tolerate. This is why some people turn to the seeming verities of religion. But I know from long experience as a teacher, mainly of working men and women, that discussion and analysis of these twin evils resonate strongly. We just have to find the ways and the means to hammer the effects of these evils home, over and over, in our unions, at our workplaces, in our political work, in letters to the editor, in our daily conversations.

Reference Note

The data on income and wealth distribution and on racial and ethnic income and wealth differences are taken from Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Sylvia Allegretto, The State of Working America, 2004-05 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005). The Edward Abbey quote is from The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), 187. I thank Brett Clark for providing it and the citation to me. The environmental data is from http://www.lightparty.com/Economic/EnvironmentalFacts.html. David Brooks’s optimistic views of suburban/exurban America can be found in On Paradise Drive (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). The information on cruise ship workers is from an excellent article titled “Screwed If by Sea: Cruise Lines Throw Workers Overboard When It Comes to Providing Urgent Medical Care,” by Forrest Norman in the Miami New Times, available at http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/2004-11-11/news/ feature.html. For some good material on the national parks, including that which is mentioned in this article, see Philip Burnham, Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000).

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