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More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Cheap Motels and a Hotplate (2007). His earlier books are Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.
This is the introduction to Michael D. Yates, ed., More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States (Monthly Review Press, 2007). Visit http://www.monthlyreview.org to order the book.

The glaring increase in economic inequality evident in the United States over the past thirty years has finally made it into the pages of the major media. In the past three years, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times have each published a series of articles on the subject of class. The growing economic divide has also caught the attention of a few prominent economists, like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Even Treasury secretary Henry Paulson has admitted that inequality is on the rise.

The articles in the newspapers are interesting and informative, demonstrating that equality of opportunity, the shibboleth so beloved by our politicians, pundits, and educators, has lost a lot of its power. There is a chasm between the rich and poor, in terms of everything from access to schooling and health care to whom we marry. However, all of the mainstream writing on class focuses on various characteristics of individuals. People are in a class because of their income or their level of schooling. Social class, in other words, is determined by income and education, and society is broken down into rich, poor, and those in the middle. In the examination of the data, writers note that racial minorities are more likely to be poor than whites, that the middle-income group is shrinking, that the gap between rich and poor is growing, that upward mobility (from poorer to richer) is less than it used to be, that in our mass consumption society it is more difficult to discern who is in what class, that inheritance is less important than it used to be, that schooling is more important than ever in determining income and class mobility, and so forth.

Not much is said about what has been driving the increase in inequality. What is said is either wrong (for example, the argument that the growing income divide is the result of computer-generated technological change which has increased the need for skilled and highly educated workers) or superficial (for example, the argument that the policies of the Republican Party have been responsible for much of the growth in inequality). What is never said, because it cannot be said, is that inequality is a normal feature of capitalist economies, and growing inequality is a natural consequence of capitalism when there is a quiescent working class, as is the case in the United States and much of the world.

The evidence for the propositions, that capitalist economies are profoundly unequal and are more unequal the less collectively powerful workers are, is overwhelming. The productive wealth—what we call the means of production—of every capitalist economy is owned by a tiny minority of individuals. And this is true no matter what party is in power or what country we are examining. Material life is always better, on average, in those capitalist economies with well-organized workers. It is no accident that throughout Europe, and especially in the Scandinavian nations, working people enjoy guaranteed vacations and holidays, subsidized or free health care, greater access to higher education, and prohibitions against arbitrary dismissal. Unions are strong there (though in many places increasingly less so). In the United States, however, where unions are rare, workers have none of these things. Since the mid-1970s, the owners of the means of production have waged unrelenting warfare against workers and their unions, and the results are everywhere apparent—workingmen and women have become more and more subservient to the vagaries and cruelties of the marketplace. If you get sick, too bad. If your plant closes, fend for yourself. If you get old, keep working.

To say that there are classes in capitalism and that these are fundamentally connected to the nature of this mode of production—that they in fact define the system—is just a starting point. Marx argued that embedded in capital—whether in its money or physical form—is an antagonistic relationship between workers and their employers. The essence of this relationship is the exploitation of the workers, the extraction of a surplus by the employers from their labor, necessary to fuel the accumulation of capital in a milieu of intense competition. Unlike other modes of production such as slavery or feudalism, this exploitation is hidden by the market; it takes place behind the workers’ backs, so to speak. They sell their ability to work in the impersonal market, and it appears that the market dictates their pay. And assuming no overt dishonesty, it appears they get paid for each hour they work. But once they sell their labor power to the employer, it belongs to the boss just as surely as does the machinery. Inside the workplace the freedom of the market disappears, and the workers are driven, as relentlessly as possible, to produce an output far in excess of what they might choose to make if they controlled the production process. This creates an ultimately unresolvable tension between workers and employers, and this tension accounts for much of the historical trajectory of each capitalist economy.

Marx’s analysis of capitalism is fruitful, opening many fields of inquiry. If the exploitation of wage labor is central to capitalism’s operation, then it follows that the ability to maintain and, when possible, deepen this exploitation will also be central. Employers will be bound to control their workers’ labor as much as possible, to prevent them from being able to interfere with their own exploitation. The centralization of workers into factories and the use of the detailed division of labor, mechanization, and lean production can all be seen primarily as control mechanisms aimed at maintaining the surplus. That they serve to alienate workers and at the same time create a reserve army of labor only adds to the power of capital and makes it still harder for workers to intervene on their own behalf. Employers will be bound as well to do whatever they can to prevent workers from organizing collectively, since this is the one thing that can throw a monkey wrench into the drive to accumulate capital. If they can divide workers on any basis, they will—by skill, race, gender, religion, or employment. They will also organize themselves politically, using their superior monetary resources and their near-monopoly of society’s productive forces, to pressure the state to control labor, by force if necessary. They will wage ceaseless propaganda in favor of capitalism and against the system’s enemies.

Perhaps the most enlightening part of Marx’s theory of capitalism, though also the part most difficult for most people to embrace, is that if capitalism requires exploitation and all that goes with it, then exploitation cannot be eliminated within its confines. Reforms of various sorts are possible, even reforms that last a long time, but the liberation of human beings—their ability to control their own destinies, to develop their full human capacities, to live in relative harmony with one another and with the world around them—cannot be achieved in capitalism. Poverty and misery, grotesque inequality, alienation, the pillage of the environment—all will and must continue so long as we have capitalism. It’s that simple.

But if seeing capitalism through the lens of class and class struggle offers profound insights, it also generates many complicating questions. Some of these are examined by the authors of the essays in this book. Can the categories of capital and labor be given empirical reality? Who exactly are the workers? Who are the capitalists? Are there other classes? Who constitutes the ruling class? Capital rules in the logic of the system, but who rules in the concrete world? And how do they rule? What connections are there among class, race, and gender? Are race and gender separate categories that require their own special analysis or can they never be examined isolated from class? How can the rest of society, the cultural dimension, be related to the class structure? Does class determine things like a nation’s system of schooling? What about the media? Art and literature? The questions asked by scientists?

All of these questions are germane to what I think is the most important question: How do workers become class conscious? It would be reasonable to think that in the advanced capitalist countries the contradictions implicit in the system would begin to show themselves, and as they wreaked havoc on workers, the workers would begin to understand what was happening to them and act accordingly. Ironically, though labor forces in the rich capitalist nations have done many things to advance their life circumstances, they have not very often radically challenged the system itself. Instead, the most radical upheavals have taken place in poor countries: Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, and a few others. Today revolutionary movements are few in number (Nepal, Colombia, and Venezuela come to mind), and capital is on the offensive and labor in retreat throughout the rich capitalist world.

Many reasons have been put forward for the lack of class consciousness in the United States and its brethren capitalist nations, everything from business control of the media to the bureaucratization of the labor unions. For me two things stand out, which I have described as follows:

Two important problems confront the unity of the world’s workers. First, capitalism has always developed in the context of a nation, with an active and complicit state. Second, capitalism has, from its beginning, developed unevenly in different parts of the world. The original capitalist nations of Europe and, later, those special cases of the United States and Japan subjugated the rest of the world through their military and economic might, creating an imperialist system of rich and poor capitalist nations. These twin developments, nationalism and imperialism, have erected substantial barriers against the unity of the workers of the world.

In this brief introduction, I don’t have space to fully develop this idea, but an example might suffice to give readers an idea of what I meant. Consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq. How did working people and their unions respond in the United States? Most workers succumbed immediately to the government and media propaganda frenzy. Most of organized labor, which represents a small fraction of U.S. workers, opposed the war, but the opposition, with some exceptions (such as the group USLAW—U.S. Labor Against War), was tepid and nothing was said about U.S. imperialism or the imperatives of the capitalist system. Labor’s leaders generally understood that the war in Iraq is connected to oil, but there is little evidence that this goes beyond populist arguments critical of big oil and government connivance with the oil companies. Rank-and-file workers, especially those outside the unions, typically supported the war. Much of labor’s antagonism to the war ended once U.S. troops actually invaded Iraq. It reappeared as more U.S. soldiers died and as the insanity of the Bush administration became inescapably apparent. However, we seldom hear horror expressed at the Iraqis slaughtered or hear of support for Iraqi workers and the Iraqi labor movement, both of which have been in the crosshairs of the occupiers and their Iraqi allies. It is easy to imagine that should the United States wage war against another country, such as Iran, and especially if this were done under the auspices of a Democratic president, the U.S. labor movement would offer little resistance.

We see in the consciousness of the working class of the United States the impact of scores of years of nationalism within the world’s biggest and most aggressive imperialist power. The same impact occurs in all the rich capitalist nations though probably to a lesser degree in most of them. Ignorance, hatred, and feelings of superiority toward the “Other” are so ingrained in U.S. workers, especially the white majority (people of color are “Others,” too), that it is very difficult for them to see their own employers, and the government that allies with these employers, as their class enemies. In such circumstances systematic class conscious thinking and acting become nearly impossible. And turning these arguments around, it is not so hard to understand why class consciousness has been most developed among workers and peasants in the poor capitalist countries.

Some of the essays in this book offer suggestions as to how we might break out of this consciousness impasse. Lots more work needs to be done. But until we figure it out and act upon our knowledge, the class divide will continue to grow and the conditions of the working masses will continue to worsen. We have our work cut out for us.

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