Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
Capitalism has always been based on the expropriation of land, resources, and human lives in order to create the conditions for the exploitation of labor. The Industrial Revolution, as Karl Marx indicated in the nineteenth century, was made possible by means of the brutal enclosure of the commons in England together with the even more barbaric colonization abroad carried out by the European powers, encompassing “the discovery of gold and silver in the Americas, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of those continents, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins.” Taken together, these forms of “original expropriation” formed the historical basis for the “genesis of the industrial capitalist.”2
From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the present day, capitalism has plundered natural as well as human resources with abandon, squandering fresh water, soil, forests, fisheries, and mineral deposits. The world has become a sink in which to pour industrial wastes using the cheapest form of disposal. Today’s planetary ecological crisis is a direct result of this plundering and pollution of the earth.3
Nevertheless, while outright expropriation, or robbery, is always present in capitalism, as an external basis of its existence, the inner dynamic of the system arises from the exploitation of labor power, a more hidden form of robbery. Workers producing goods and services add greater value to production than the value of the wages they are paid. Part of every working day is necessarily devoted to reproducing the value of labor power as measured by the wages paid to the workers. The remainder of the working day is dedicated to producing surplus value (gross profits) for the owners of the means of production. Capitalists therefore have a direct interest in increasing the rate of exploitation of the workers by increasing the portion of the working day devoted to producing surplus value and decreasing the portion devoted to the reproduction of the labor power of the workers. Surplus value appropriated by the capitalists in this way forms the basis of capital accumulation, directly enhancing the power and wealth of the capitalist class in relation to the working class.
The wealthy, most establishment economists, and much of the general public view the existing relations between labor and capital to be completely rational and fair. Enshrined in the entire legal system, this way of thinking assumes these relations are based on an equal exchange. After all, workers are free to take a job with a given salary and benefits (if any) or not. For their part, capitalists will only employ workers when they can make a profit doing so. The relationship between boss and workers commonly appears as one of “equality,” as if it were a transparent contract mutually agreed upon with equal power on both sides. But, behind this appearance of rational and freely made decisions based on equal exchange lies a very different reality.
The general relations between labor and capital are far from equal, with capital in a very strong position compared to most workers. The capitalist owns the land, the place of business, the machinery, the money used in the running of the business, and the jobs. The workers own nothing but their capacity to work, which they can sell, but under conditions not of their own choosing. A significant disadvantage that most workers face is that they are not able to make a living on their own, lacking the money capital, tools, and facilities with which to engage in production. Although starting a small business is sometimes an option, they often fail due to a lack of capital or difficult competition, while the most successful ones are absorbed by bigger companies. Thus, workers are forced to take jobs where and when they can find them.
Workers are generally subjected to a labor process determined entirely by the owners. It is the boss who sets conditions of work and defines what is expected from workers. Moreover, it is the owner that has the power to hire and fire, with little in the way of contractual relations preventing the worker from being made “redundant” and laid off. As professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan Elizabeth Anderson explains, “When we are workers, we lie under the government of a boss. It’s a dictatorship. The boss rules.”4 Much of labor is in a precarious situation, not knowing if a round of firings might occur when economic downturns strike, if a decision will be made to outsource the work or produce in another region or another country, or whether the boss might simply take a dislike to an individual worker, who would then be “let go.” In addition, the precarious nature of work has been fueled by the rise of gig workers, constantly changing schedules, and the uncertainties and inequities of part-time and temporary work.
The difference between “standard” exploitation and actual expropriation (or theft) becomes extremely murky in low-paying jobs where workers receive so little that they are frequently eligible for government assistance with food, rent, or health care. These are situations in which workers are paid less than they need to exist. As Barbara Ehrenreich explained, this occurs “when someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply, and conveniently.… The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.”5 Low-paid workers are thus also “philanthropists” to the wealthy owners of businesses, allowing them to accumulate even more capital than if the workers were paid a living wage.
In addition to clearly unfair contracts and arrangements, labor is constrained from obtaining better conditions by a pool of potential workers who are looking for work, including part-time workers wanting full-time employment. A “reserve army” of workers is always present, even in so-called tight labor situations.6 Even though the official U.S. unemployment rate in early 2023 is lower than it has been in over fifty years, workers are still coming into the labor force in significant numbers, showing how little the official employment rate relates to reality.7 This pool of potential workers allows capital to hold down wages.
In the calculation of the official U.S. unemployment rate, some would-be workers are referred to as “discouraged” and are not counted as unemployed, since they want to work but have not sought jobs in recent weeks. Others left out of the official unemployment rates are classified as “marginally attached” to the labor force—that is, they want work but are not able to obtain jobs because of absence of transportation, lack of affordable daycare for their children, or other material reasons. Still, others drop out of the labor force because of the horrendous conditions of work and poor pay in most jobs. All such workers, as well as those officially unemployed, and those employed part-time wanting full-time work, properly belong to the reserve army of labor. In addition, the imperial role of the United States and other rich countries allows them to draw on a massive global reserve army of labor that exceeds in size the world’s active labor force.8
The current relatively tight labor market in the United States has a number of causes: early retirements stimulated by the pandemic, greatly reduced immigration, and people dropping out because of stress in the workplace, and job-related injuries and illnesses. The decline in labor force participation is a phenomenon that predates the COVID-19 epidemic (and even the Great Recession) and is especially noticeable for men without college degrees. The portion of prime working-age men (25–54) either working or looking for work in the United States has declined from nearly 95 percent in the late 1960s to 86 percent before the pandemic set in during 2020. Altogether, there are over 8 million men of prime working age who are not working or actively looking for work. Many women aged 25–54, who under better conditions would normally be seeking employment, have also dropped out of the labor force.9
The Structural Crisis of Capital
The first quarter-century after the Second World War has frequently been characterized as “the golden age” of modern capitalism. Historical conditions in the period were exceptionally favorable for economic growth and prosperity. These included:
- the emergence of the United States as the hegemonic power in the capitalist world economy, reflected in the global dominance of the dollar, the expansion of the international trading system, and the creation of a dollar-based world oil market;
- a buildup of consumer liquidity during the Second World War, which greatly expanded effective demand after the war;
- the rebuilding of the war-shattered economies of Western Europe and Japan;
- Cold War/imperialist military spending, including two major regional wars in Asia (in Korea and Vietnam);
- the introduction of new technologies, mainly as the result of war and war preparation, such as computers and jet aircraft;
- a vast expansion of the “sales effort”;
- a new stage in the automobilization of the U.S. economy, which included the construction of the interstate highway system, the reinforcement of the auto, steel, and glass industries, and the growth of suburbanization; and
- the rapid growth of foreign direct investment by multinational corporations centered in the advanced capitalist states.10
Writing in Monopoly Capital in 1966, at the very height of the post-Second World War boom when orthodox economists were declaring the business cycle a thing of the past, economists Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy emphasized the temporary nature of these conditions. “The normal state of the monopoly capitalist economy,” they wrote, “is stagnation.” The exceptionally long post-Second World War boom, they argued, would come to an end, with the disappearance or weakening of these special historical forces.11
Monopoly capitalism has a tendency to slow growth compared to the freely competitive capitalism of the early stages of industrialization. The combination of high profit margins rooted in high rates of exploitation and monopoly prices, excess productive capacity, and significant levels of unemployment/underemployment has created conditions of the overaccumulation of capital. More surplus is generated than can be profitably absorbed within the “real economy” through new investment and capitalist consumption. Excess productive capacity endemic to monopoly capitalism leads to low rates of net investment in new capacity, and thus, relatively slow growth. Innovations, though historically significant, are seldom of such an epoch-making character that they spur overall investment, and often are capital-saving rather than capital-absorbing.
Within a few years of the publication of Monopoly Capital, U.S. capacity utilization began a downward trend. Consumer liquidity had turned into consumer debt. The interstate highway system had largely been built. The Western European and Japanese economies had been rebuilt, shifting to slower growth. Meanwhile, U.S. control of world oil prices was slipping. Oil prices, which for decades had been kept low, thus powering the world economic expansion, gradually rose from around two dollars to about three dollars per barrel in the early 1970s. In response to U.S. support of Israel in its 1973 war with Egypt and Syria (The Yom Kippur War), the Arab members of OPEC (or OAPEC) cut production and reduced exports, causing crude oil prices to increase from about three to twelve dollars to over thirty dollars per barrel. The oil embargo contributed to the deep recession of 1973–75, which introduced a period of stagflation (stagnation plus inflation).
The inflation surge was reduced in the 1980s by means of the Federal Reserve’s sharp increases to interest rates and the engineering of a further deep recession, resulting in a huge growth in unemployment. The subsequent gradual reduction in interest rates contributed to an explosion of finance that indirectly stimulated the economy but created a whole new debt superstructure imposed on top of production or “the real economy.” The result was a structural crisis of capital reflected in a half-century of persistent economic stagnation, punctuated by financial bubbles, not only in the United States but in the rest of the advanced capitalist world as well.12
The slowdown in economic growth has been substantial, with the rate of GDP expansion falling from an average of 4.3 percent per year in the 1950s and ’60s, to 3.2 percent in the ’70s through the ’90s, to 2.0 percent in the first two decades of the twenty-first century.13 Long periods of sluggish growth are endemic to monopoly capitalism, as argued by Baran and Sweezy in the 1960s—and by Harry Magdoff and Sweezy in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, in works such as Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (1986) and The Irreversible Crisis (1987). In this view, it is not the tendency to stagnation that requires explanation so much as exceptional periods of high growth rates.14
The Neoliberal Turn
The capitalist class is ideologically disposed to see every economic crisis as caused by labor, government, and other factors external to capital itself. Faced with the economic crises and stagnation beginning in the 1970s, corporations and the wealthy responded with a variety of tactics designed to increase their power relative to the rest of society:
- initially jacking up interest rates to increase unemployment and quell inflation via “shock therapy”;
- gradually lowering interest rates again over an extended period to stimulate production and finance;
- undertaking an expanded marketing effort to sell more stuff, including expansion of consumer credit/debt through credit cards and other means;
- engaging in mergers and acquisitions to further concentrate and centralize capital;
- insisting on heavy military spending, even in peacetime;
- calling for tax reductions and other government subsidies to capital and the wealthy;
- initiating lobbying campaigns against laws and regulations seen as inhibiting profits;
- shifting of production abroad to take advantage of low unit wage costs in poor countries; and
- using a variety of methods to weaken unions and working-class resistance.
What can be described as the neoliberal turn was a new synergy of state and market, with the increasing subordination of the social reproduction tasks, associated with the welfare state, to capitalist reproduction, as in the military-industrial-financial complex. Whole sections of the state such as central banking and the main mechanisms of monetary policy are now outside effective governmental control and under the sway of financial capital.15
A leading manifestation of this turn is the growing power of privately held corporations due to changes in federal laws and regulations. As Securities and Exchange (SEC) Commissioner Allison Herren Lee explained in a speech titled “Going Dark: The Growth of Private Markets and the Impact on Investors and the Economy” in 2021:
Perhaps the single most significant development in securities markets in the new millennium has been the explosive growth of private markets [privately held as opposed to publicly traded corporations]. We’ve become all too familiar with the statistics: more capital has been raised in these markets than public markets each year for over a decade with no signs of a change in the trend. The increasing flows into these markets have also significantly increased the overall portion of our equities markets and our economy that is non-transparent to investors, markets, policymakers, and the public.
The vast amount of capital in these markets, attributable in part to policy choices made by the [SEC] Commission over the past few decades, has also created new, but no longer rare or mythical kinds of businesses known as Unicorns—private companies with valuations of $1 billion or more. So christened in 2013 when their existence and number was more fittingly associated with fairy tales, they have since grown dramatically in both number and, importantly, in size, reaching dizzying valuations nearing and even exceeding $100 billion. In today’s markets, companies can and do stay private far longer than ever before, despite the fact that they often dwarf their public counterparts in size and influence.16
These so-called Unicorns include such well-known companies as Cargill, Koch Industries, Mars, Bloomberg, and Hearst.17 So great is the lack of transparency surrounding such privately held firms that “unions bargaining for employee rights and protections may lack important financial information about companies employing tens of thousands of workers.”18
The neoliberal turn, rather than restoring rapid growth, only intensified the contradictions of overaccumulation and stagnation of the U.S. economy, requiring the expansion of old and development of new supports for the system. Throughout the post-Second World War era, government spending has played a major role in putting a floor under the economy. This is particularly evident in the case of the gargantuan U.S. military budget, now officially approaching $1 trillion a year, and in reality, counting the unofficial military spending hidden elsewhere in the budget, far more than that.19 Military spending serves the double purpose of supporting corporations and providing effective demand for the economy while also expanding the U.S. empire and serving to promote the interests of centralized capital throughout the globe. However, the increase of military spending is limited, as the United States already spends as much as the next nine military powers combined—and large wars can lead to catastrophic destruction. Although the U.S./NATO proxy war with Russia in Ukraine is boosting the Pentagon budget, a full-scale war between the superpowers (already becoming dangerously near) threatens nuclear annihilation.20 Hence, increases in military spending are no longer able to provide sufficient stimulus to lift the economy out of economic stagnation.
Under these circumstances, corporations have increasingly turned to finance as a primary way of employing their accumulating cash, with the aim of taking advantage of ever increasing asset prices. The result has been a new phase of monopoly-finance capital dependent on low interest rates, and periodic government bailouts.21 Financialization is all about the expansion of debt and speculation. Debt of all kinds has exploded within the private sector. Finance capital has turned a portion of the economy into a giant casino in which you can literally make bets on anything imaginable. This development is fed by a constant array of new financial “instruments.” “Vulture capitalists” get into the act by buying companies using leverage (debt put on a company’s books), and then sometimes selling off parts. Using this scheme—buy it, strip it, flip it—larger units of capital extract cash while leaving companies weakened, frequently filing for bankruptcy while workers lose their jobs.
Financialization is inextricably linked to the general monopolization trend in the economy, the active promotion of which became deliberate government policy, breaking with previous antitrust practice.22 To promote mergers and acquisitions, as a way of feeding the financialization process, the federal government removed a whole set of restrictions dating back to the New Deal era, notably separating commercial from investment banking. This has led to vast new waves of finance-induced corporate concentration. Fewer firms controlling a large share of the market means that monopolies/oligopolies have greater power to raise prices and generate higher profit margins (larger markups over costs), as well as greater power to suppress wages. By the time of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, the top two hundred corporations alone accounted for around 30 percent of gross profits in the U.S. economy (an economy which included 5.5 million corporations, 2 million partnerships, 17.7 million non-farm sole proprietorships, and 1.8 million farm sole proprietorships).23
Economic crises under capitalism, it bears repeating, are almost invariably attributed by capital to high wages, low labor-productivity increases, and government interference. Regardless of actual facts, this has been the main assertion of the capitalist class in response to every economic crisis since the Second World War. Although the tendency to economic stagnation was fairly apparent, orthodox economics generally ignored this before 2008, and even now seeks to downplay the full depth of the problem.
This failure to confront reality was reflected in the dominant economic ideology of the 1980s, initially referred to as so-called supply-side economics. The new economic ideology took the form of justifying redistribution of income and wealth from the poor to the rich—sometimes criticized as “Robin Hood in reverse”—as a solution to the economic slowdown. The wealthy were said to be suffering from a squeeze on profits and a consequent shortage of capital to invest. Another way to say this is that corporations and the rich were not rich enough, even when they were sitting on piles of money that they were not investing. The remedies then became: (1) increasing the economic surplus at the disposal of the corporate rich through measures designed to increase profits, or to cut taxes, and (2) removing regulations to promote corporate expansion and privatization.
It has been repeatedly demonstrated that new infusions of economic surplus into corporations and the wealthy, under conditions of monopoly-finance capital, only serve in the main to swell asset prices. However, this is completely ignored by self-interested economists, corporate backers, and the well-to-do. Although net investment in the real economy has continued to stagnate, that has not prevented capital from endlessly repeating the same refrain: the rich just do not have enough money to spark new investment, requiring endless rounds of economic austerity. The pursuit of this strategy has led to a systematic restructuring of capital’s relation to labor, the state, and the world economy. This general restructuring of the political economy in this era, including attempts to subordinate the state more fully to the logic of capital, gradually took on the name of neoliberalism, sometimes also referred to as neoliberal globalization.24
In the neoliberal era, the economy grew ever more slowly despite the fact that financialization served to lift it for brief periods through what came to be known as the wealth effect. As a larger piece of the overall economic pie went to the wealthy, this stimulated luxury consumption by the rich, who devoted a small percentage of their increased financial assets to buying private planes, yachts, additional mansions, etc., serving to boost the economy for short periods of time.
Today, financialization has become completely ingrained in the economy and has progressed to the manipulation of personal financial flows of the population outside of regular income. This is accomplished by techniques that are more systematic and rapacious than in the past, such as raiding private and public pensions and health insurance, charging much higher rates of interest to the poor, and inflating pharmaceutical costs.
At the height of the Wall Street bubbles, large parts of the population were drawn into the act. Before the housing bubble burst in the Great Recession/Great Financial Crisis of 2007–09, low interest rates allowed homeowners to refinance and take out second mortgages based on an increase in home values so that their spending could go up even if incomes did not. However, increasing levels of household debt in society pushed many into bankruptcy when the crisis came.
Following the Great Financial Crisis, it became more and more apparent that the nature of the new monopoly-finance capital system demanded ever greater squeezing of revenue flows from the larger population. All forms of support for the general population—such as income, pensions, health insurance, spending on public education, welfare allowances, and so on—were negatively affected. These neoliberal responses to the structural crisis of capitalism have served to increase the power, income, and wealth of capital relative to the working and lower-middle classes, with crushing effects on labor.
When proposals are made with the backing of the great majority of the population to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, capitalists today proclaim that this is part of a “class war” against them. But the real class war that has been underway for more than a half-century is the one waged by capital against labor. As billionaire investor Warren Buffett explained when asked whether class war existed: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”25 (For a discussion of the general condition of labor in the U.S. and the war fought by capital against labor, see our earlier article, “ ”26)
The Assault on Unions
The rapid growth of the labor movement during and after the Great Depression led to union membership being extended to about a third of the labor force from the mid-1940s through the mid-’50s. During this period, lasting into the 1960s, associated with the so-called golden age, wages went up faster than inflation. This meant that the real wages of workers (accounting for inflation) rose to some extent along with productivity, allowing for an increasingly comfortable life for many workers. The gradual growth of workers’ real wages in this period helped to expand the economy by increasing effective demand, stimulating capital investment. Nevertheless, business saw this as a mixed blessing, since the profit margins of corporations, though reaching double digits after taxes during business cycle peaks in the 1950s and ’60s, were held down somewhat by rising real wages.27 The difficulty in raising the rate of exploitation of workers in the so-called golden age of capitalism was seen by the vested interests as adversely affecting the corporate bottom line.
The shift of power toward labor during the New Deal of the 1930s and the Second World War led to a counterattack during the McCarthy Era in which the first target was the communist/socialist-led unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Conservative business union leaderships, seeking to align themselves more closely with capital, joined in the struggle against radical unionism. This led to ten radical unions being expelled from the CIO alongside an unrelenting attack on all militant union practices directed especially at undercutting their ability to organize and to strike. This began with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, but was followed by a host of other measures against labor. The eventual result was a decline in the percentage of workers belonging to unions beginning in the mid-1960s. The decline accelerated in the 1980s after Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers (replacing them in the interim with military air-traffic controllers used as strikebreakers). From that point on, anti-union propaganda and action became more socially “acceptable” in government and the mass media. Capital’s offensive against labor caused the percentage of workers in unions to decline from roughly one-third to about 10 percent of all workers (now including about one-third of government workers, but less than 6 percent of private business workers). The last decade to witness a large number of strike actions was the 1970s, with nearly 300 work stoppages affecting 1,000 or more workers and an average of 26 million days of lost work each year.28
Capital sees unions as a threat to its profit margins even in nonunionized sectors of the economy because of the general effect on wage levels and benefits. The struggle against unions only intensified in the new financialized economy beginning in the 1980s, since financialization requires for its continuation ever greater streams of economic surplus appropriated from workers in the “real economy” of production. This led to a more aggressive approach of capital and the state aimed at reducing the strength of labor.
High union membership (and the greater income union workers receive compared to nonunion workers) has an impact far beyond the unionized workers. The wages of many nonunion workers in similar jobs will tend to improve as unions win better contracts. Likewise, when the minimum wage increases, workers already earning at or above the new, higher minimum wage tend to get wage increases as well.
Capital’s fight against unions has only accelerated in this century, with companies such as Amazon, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s “[mounting] a fierce counterattack against the union drives” using new tools of surveillance to fight workers.29 A 2023 fact sheet published by the Economic Policy Institute is titled “Employers Are Charged with Violating Federal Law in Nearly 40% of Union Elections.”30 As the editorial board of Britain’s Financial Times wrote: “Intense pushback against unionization is becoming the norm in the US—and it is having an impact. The intense opposition from many major US employers to workers who are trying to unionize is a major factor in the recent decline in labor union density in the US, with the US having among the lowest union densities compared with other industrialized nations around the world.”31
The Increasing Distress of the U.S. Working Class
The working class in the United States has had an especially difficult time over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The first decade began with a recession following the bursting of the dotcom bubble and after a short recovery was soon followed by the financial and housing crisis of the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009. It took over six years for total employment to return to prerecession levels, and even longer for the number of full-time workers to equal prerecession levels. It was nine years before the unemployment rate went down to the prerecession level of 4.7 percent. Millions of people lost their homes and personal bankruptcies soared. Home ownership declined for a decade, with investors buying up properties to convert to rental houses. “[I]nvestors bought at least two million homes, and almost certainly far more than that, with prices depressed. Large-scale institutional investors purchased tens of thousands of homes for less than they cost to build.”32 Skyrocketing rents in 2021–22, along with inflation in other parts of the economy, including the rising cost of food, have been disastrous for millions of people.
The war on workers’ wages and working conditions has only accelerated under these conditions. In addition to routine exploitation, there are a number of ways that firms cut workers’ wages. One is to avoid paying overtime (at 50 percent more than base wages) through job title inflation, creating position titles that make it appear as if a worker is a manager. When a front desk clerk becomes a “director of first impressions,” a barber becomes a “grooming manager,” or a food cart attendant becomes a “food cart manager,” workers do not come under mandatory extra pay for overtime.33 Another way for companies to avoid paying overtime—or, for that matter, sometimes even any defined wage or other compensation—is to classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees. Another ploy to suppress wages is for businesses to contract out a portion of needed labor—custodial work, for example—to other companies that employ workers at low wages, with no health care or pension coverage. This way, subcontractors, instead of the large companies, are blamed when there are problems such as illegally exploiting migrant child labor to perform dangerous tasks.34
A further heightening of the exploitation of workers takes the form of noncompete clauses. It is estimated that some 20 percent of the private labor force has been required to promise not to leave the job and go to another company doing the same or similar work.35 These noncompete clauses help to depress wages by making it difficult for workers to change jobs to similar ones that might pay more or have better working conditions. Other techniques for controlling labor include: (1) a requirement of some workers to give four months’ notice or face paying the business for leaving before that period, (2) requiring the workers to pay a company for the training received when they leave, and (3) forcing foreign workers to pay an exorbitant fee for leaving. Health Carousel LLC, for example, charges “a $20,000 quitting fee to coerce foreign nurses into remaining in miserable working conditions.”36
Then there is the actual direct theft of wages by capital. It is estimated that U.S. workers are robbed of some $50 billion annually.37 This type of expropriation includes not paying for overtime, paying less than the minimum wage, compelling workers to work longer hours than they are paid for, stealing tips, and so on. According to an article in Forbes Advisor, “low-wage workers, in industries such as construction, child care and food services, are disproportionately affected by wage theft.”38
One technique often used by capital to increase profits through higher rates of labor exploitation is to cut staff jobs below the actual number needed to carry out tasks safely and without exceptional stress. This leaves the remaining workers scrambling and constantly under pressure. This has happened in many sectors, such as for-profit hospitals and nursing homes and in warehouses. Staffing of railroads has decreased so greatly that it is hard for workers to take a sick day or make medical appointments:
Even as railroads are operating longer and longer freight trains that sometimes stretch for miles, the companies have drastically reduced staffing levels, prompting unions to warn that moves meant to increase profits could endanger safety and even result in disasters.
More than 22% of the jobs at railroads Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have been eliminated since 2017, when CSX implemented a cost-cutting system called Precision Scheduled Railroading that most other U.S. railroads later copied. BNSF, the largest U.S. railroad and the only one that hasn’t expressly adopted that model, has still made staff cuts to improve efficiency and remain competitive.39
Staff cuts have real-world effects on workers and the general public. In late 2022, as Congress and the Biden Administration rushed to forestall a national railroad strike, they neglected the workers’ concerns about difficult conditions caused by short staffing: “[R]ailroad workers had pushed for paid sick days to provide relief for grueling schedules caused by…labor cuts, with many workers on call 24/7 every day of the year, often having to work while sick or forgo doctor’s appointments because of their scheduling demands and strict disciplinary policies around attendance.”40 In addition to “precision scheduling systems” that cut railroad crews, companies also skimped on maintenance. This corporate negligence possibly played a role in the February 2023 derailment in Ohio of rail cars that burned and released a variety of very toxic materials. According to Leo McCann, chair of the rail labor division of the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department: “The railroads are more interested in profitability and keeping their return on investment up and their numbers down so they can satisfy Wall Street, and they just live behind this shield hoping nothing will happen.”41
Another reason for workers’ hard times is the loss of industrial jobs (“deindustrialization”) over large swaths of the United States. This is not just about the loss of well-paying union/manufacturing jobs, but the hollowing out of whole communities or even cities, resulting from increasing levels of automation and robotization, the shifting of manufacturing to the nonunion Southern United States, and the effects of international trade agreements that encourage production abroad. Such trade agreements have expedited a general process whereby U.S. multinationals rely on “global labor arbitrage,” or the exploitation (and superexploitation) of workers in the Global South. This means shifting production to countries with low unit labor costs (that is, the difference in wages compared to the advanced capitalist states is greater than the difference in productivities).42 This system is kept in place by the overall economic, political, and military structures of imperialism, with the United States at the center.
The result of the global labor arbitrage is a general worldwide race to the bottom in wages, which has contributed to the desperation of people nearly everywhere in the capitalist world economy, and the increasing difficulty of their lives. In the United States, this has contributed to an epidemic of “deaths of despair.” Here it should be noted that despair in Black communities has been occurring for a long time, caused by high unemployment rates, poorly paid jobs, and continual discrimination in all walks of life. But the phenomenon only gained prolonged mainstream attention when it spread in white communities as well.43
It is estimated that almost a quarter of U.S. workers are in low-paying jobs. But, in addition to poverty wages, the poor and other low-income workers are subject to further types of expropriation: rents of their housing are high relative to the value of the dwelling and have increased rapidly over the last decade (“landlords operating in poor neighborhoods typically take in profits that are double those of landlords operating in affluent communities”); because of low or nonexistent savings, they pay a large portion of the $11 billion of bank overdraft fees; and those without access to the banking system pay fees of $1.6 billion for check-cashing and $8 billion for payday loans. As counterintuitive as it may be, there is money to be made off of poverty.44
The plight of working people in the United States and other rich economies has gotten so severe that it is even discussed in the mainstream business press. At the end of 2020, during the pandemic, the Financial Times published an editorial outlining some of the problems:
Most of us depend—at times literally for our lives—on people stocking shelves, delivering food, cleaning hospitals, caring for the old and infirm. Yet many of these unsung heroes are underpaid, overworked, and suffer unpredictable work opportunities and insecurity while on the job. A neologism coined to describe them—the “precariat”—is apt.… The epidemic of low-paid, insecure jobs reflects a failure.… Over the past four decades, work has failed to secure stable and adequate incomes for growing numbers of people. This shows up in stagnant wages, erratic incomes, non-existent financial buffers for emergencies, low job security and brutalised working conditions.… Many suffer a rising risk of homelessness and epidemics of drug and alcohol-related diseases. Benefit systems can help—but can also trap already vulnerable people in labyrinthine administrative Catch-22s.45
The economic data clearly indicates that a significant number of people have seen stagnant or decreasing purchasing power. The government collects information for all wage and salary earners as well those referred to as “production and nonsupervisory” workers. This category comprises about 80 percent of all workers in private business, or about 100 million employees. From the 1950s through the mid-’70s, average “real compensation” (wages plus fringe benefits, corrected for inflation) of production and nonsupervisory workers increased in line somewhat with increased GDP and productivity. But over the last four decades, while labor productivity (output per hour) for all workers increased by 75 percent and real GDP per capita increased by almost 100 percent, the average compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers increased by a meager 15 percent, and median compensation has actually decreased (Chart 1).46
Chart 1. Real per Capita GDP, Average Compensation, and Median Compensation (Production and Nonsupervisory Roles)
Sources: Index of real average and median compensation calculated from Economic Policy Institute Working America Data Library, “,” , updated September 2021
Indeed, from the 1960s to 2020, the wages of production and nonsupervisory workers in private employment declined from about 30 percent to around 20 percent of GDP (Chart 2). A smaller share of income or value added in the economy was therefore going to wages, especially for those at the lower end of incomes. The inverse of this is that a larger share of value added was being appropriated by capital, resulting in enormous capital surpluses amassed at the top of the economy. In August 2022, corporations were sitting on $5.9 trillion in cash that was not being invested (much of it stashed abroad to avoid taxes), a phenomenon characteristic of monopoly-finance capital, where the economy is geared more to amassing financial assets and hoarding cash for that purpose than to productive investment.47 It is estimated that the large companies in the S&P 500 index will use $1 trillion in 2023 to buy their own stocks in order to prop up their prices.48
Chart 2. Total Annual Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Workers (Percent of GDP)
The implications of real wage stagnation for the working class are profound. For example, it is estimated that male workers over 25 years old and earning the median wage in 1985 had to work full-time for forty weeks to afford a year of a so-called middle-class life—or the standard necessary for the reproduction of labor power in a household, including such costs as food, housing, child care, education, health care, transportation, and communications. Today, because the median real (inflation corrected) wage has actually fallen, it takes a full sixty-two weeks to generate the same standard of living. The latter means either working multiple jobs or having a two-earner household is essential to reaching this income level. For that portion of men over 25 years of age who only have a high school education, the working time it takes to attain this living standard for a year went from about forty-three weeks in 1985 to eighty weeks.49 When it is considered that half of all workers by definition earn less than the median wage (or median compensation), it is no surprise that so many people are struggling today. Over 60 percent of workers (even half of those earning $100,000) are living paycheck to paycheck, with few or no reserves available if an unexpected emergency occurs.50
Over the last half-century, while capitalists were crushing workers’ living standards and exploiting them at ever higher levels, the wealthy were using their influence to increase political power in order to make sure their wealth increased exponentially. Taxes were reduced on estates and income tax was cut for high earners as well as for corporations. The decrease in corporate and excise taxes caused the personal income tax to take up the slack so that in 2022—when the dedicated Social Security and Medicare taxes are omitted—it represented over 70 percent of federal government tax revenue.51 With personal income taxes becoming a larger part of federal revenue raised, and high earners paying a lower percent of their income in taxes, there is more regressive tax pressure on modest earners.
The estate tax, which only touches the well-off, has been a special target of lobbyists for the rich. “The [lobbying] campaign succeeded spectacularly. In 1976 about 139,000 American households were eligible for the estate tax, by 2020 it had been punctured by so many exemptions that only 1,275 households nationwide had to pay. Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic adviser who helped engineer the most recent loosening of the provision, was heard to tell members of Congress, ‘Only morons pay the estate tax.’”52 The Treasury Department estimated that tax evasion in 2019 by the richest 1 percent cost the government $163 billion.53 With tax lawyers continually creating new ways to reduce taxes on the wealthy and the Internal Revenue Service understaffed and unable properly to evaluate the complex tax returns of the rich, an increased burden falls especially on moderate income earners.
Tax law changes favoring the wealthy were so “successful” that the richest four hundred households are now paying their taxes (total of federal, state, and local) at lower rates than those of the bottom 50 percent of households (Chart 3).
Chart 3. Total Tax (Local, State, Federal) as Percent of Income
The Full Magnitude of the Robbery of the Working Class
The constraints on increases in the wages and salaries of a large portion of workers led to the stagnation of real wages. The actual purchasing power of workers’ wages has barely budged since the early 1960s.54 The rich, meanwhile, succeeded in creating new ways to make and preserve their own income. The result was an enormous transfer of income that under earlier conditions would have gone to workers, but which are now going into the hands of the already well-to-do. According to a study by the RAND Corporation that looked at changes in income accruing to various income levels from 1975 to 2018, the income of the highest earners increased much faster than the growth in the economy, while lower down the income ladder, income grew progressively less. From 1975 to 2018, the percent of taxable income going to the highest 10 percent of earners went from 34 to 50 percent of the total U.S. personal income.55 The study also estimated how incomes at various levels would have changed during the period if incomes at all income segments (deciles) had increased in tandem, remaining in the same ratio to each other. The report indicates that, for the bottom 90 percent, the gap “between what a segment of the population currently earns versus what they would have earned had incomes grown with the broader economy” was approximately $2.5 trillion in 2018. For the entire period from 1975 to 2018, the report estimates that the gap totaled over $47 trillion.
Similarly, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that with equitable income growth from 1980 to 2018, the 10 percent lowest earners would have had nearly 80 percent greater income in 2018 than they actually received, while median pretax incomes would have been about one-third higher (Table 1).56 Conversely, equitable income growth would have left the richest 400 households with 85 percent less income than they received in 2018. They would have needed to scrape by on an average pretax income of $66 million instead of $456 million.57
Table 1. Pre-Tax Income and Difference Between Equitable And Actual Income Increase from 1980 to 2018
|Income percent range||Pre-tax 2018 income (dollars)||Difference between equitable and actual income increases (dollars)|
|Top 400 households||$456,562,560||-$390,026,495|
The capitalist class has shown itself more than ever to be the ruling class of society. Capital is also able to pour a huge amount of money into elections and to use its lobbyists to write laws and regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court virtually lifted all constraints on campaign contributions by the wealthy, allowing competing sectors of the capitalist class to more effectively buy off U.S. elections. The capitalist class has succeeded in watering down enforcement of many regulations while reducing union membership and suppressing wage gains. As the NAFTA and WTO went into effect, multinational corporations were given greater freedom to invest abroad and repatriate capital at will. The value chains created, where component parts of a commodity are sourced from a variety of countries and companies and assembled in relatively low unit labor cost regions, have enormously enhanced corporate profits.58 At the same time, the conditions of workers in the United States have deteriorated. Many have been left behind, struggling to survive as wage increases seldom keep up with inflation.59
Although the relative contributions of what is considered “normal” capitalist exploitation and actual expropriation are uncertain, the effect of the combination of the two has been a big squeeze on workers’ income. If the relative differences among various income levels had remained as they were in the 1960s and early ’70s, workers—especially those classified as production and nonsupervisory workers, making up approximately 80 percent of the total workforce—would have had significantly higher income than they now have. The estimated $47 trillion of income “lost” to the bottom 90 percent during the period of 1975–2018 could have helped workers pay for food, rent, utilities, health care, transportation, connectivity, and education while staying out of debt. And if the government had raised more taxes from the very wealthy, it could have easily created programs and jobs to help people in communities with little hope of a better future. And, of course, if the United States spent less on the military, did not have so many bases abroad, and stopped engaging in foreign wars, significant resources could be freed for social uses.
As Bernie Sanders states in the title of his new book, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.60 Since capital has been engaged in an intensified class war against workers for decades, with disastrous results for all but the wealthy, is it any wonder that workers are now beginning to organize again and to fight back with renewed union struggles? One thing is certain: only a great uprising from below on the scale of the 1930s is capable of producing greater worker power to create a much fairer and more equitable society.
- ↩ Woody Guthrie, “Pretty Boy Floyd,” RCA Victor, recorded April 26, 1940.
- ↩ Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976); Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 20, 129.
- ↩ On the role of expropriation in capitalism, including the expropriation of nature, see John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, The Robbery of Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020).
- ↩ Peter Coy, “Unseparated and Unequal,” New York Times newsletter, October 17, 2022.
- ↩ Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), 221
- ↩ Fred Magdoff and Harry Magdoff, “Disposable Workers: Today’s Reserve Army of Labor,” Monthly Review 55, no. 11 (April 2004): 18–35.
- ↩ Nicholas Megaw, “US companies say it is easier to hire despite low jobless rate,” Financial Times, February 26, 2023.
- ↩ John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 144–47.
- ↩ Calculated from St. Louis Federal Reserve FRED database files LREM25MAUSA156S and LFWA25MAUSM647S.
- ↩ Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, The Deepening Crisis of U.S. Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981), 181–82; Harry Magdoff, “International Economic Distress and the Third World,” Monthly Review 33, no. 11 (April 1982): 3–5. The waning of these various factors that had stimulated post-Second World War growth was connected also to the maturation of the industrialization process in the advanced capitalist economy, which came into play once the fundamental productive capacity had been built up and tended toward excess, so that the economy became increasingly geared therefore toward simple reproduction. See John Bellamy Foster, “The Age of Planetary Crisis,” Review of Radical Political Economics 29, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 116–20.
- ↩ Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1961), 108.
- ↩ John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 63–76.
- ↩ Calculated from St. Louis Federal Reserve FRED, “Real Gross Domestic Product Billions of Chained 2012 Dollars Quarterly Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate” (data series GDPC1).
- ↩ Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986); Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, The Irreversible Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987); Foster and McChesney, The Endless Crisis.
- ↩ John Bellamy Foster, “Absolute Capitalism,” Monthly Review 71, no. 1 (May 2019): 8.
- ↩ Allison Herren Lee, “Going Dark: The Growth of Private Markets and the Impact on Investors and the Economy,” Remarks at the SEC Speaks in 2021, October 12, 2021, sec.gov.
- ↩ Andrea Murphy, “America’s Largest Private Companies 2002,” Forbes, December 1, 2002.
- ↩ Lee, “Going Dark.”
- ↩ John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. Chesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October 2008): 1–19.
- ↩ Ashik Siddique, “U.S. Still Spends More on Military than Next Nine Countries Combined,” National Priorities Project, June 22, 2022, nationalpriorties.org.
- ↩ Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis, 63–76. In a single week in March 2023, as we write this, the Federal Reserve has bailed out collapsing banks, Silicon Valley oligarchs, and venture capital firms to the tune of $300 billion. See Ben Norton, “US Government Bailout of Silicon Valley Banks is $300 Billion Gift to Rich Oligarchs,” Geopolitical Economy, March 19, 2023, geopoliticaleconomy.com.
- ↩ Lina Khan and Sandeep Vaheesan, “Market Power and Inequality: The Antitrust Counterrevolution and Its Discontents,” 11 Harvard Law and Policy Review (2017): 235–294.
- ↩ John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna, “Monopoly and Competition in Twenty-First Century Capitalism,” Monthly Review 62, no. 11 (April 2011): 6–7.
- ↩ Foster, “Absolute Capitalism,” 1–13.
- ↩ Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, November 26, 2006.
- ↩ Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, “The Plight of the U.S. Working Class,” Monthly Review 65, no. 8 (January 2014): 1–22.
- ↩ “Unchecked Corporate Pricing Power Is a Factor in US Inflation,” Financial Times, March 18, 2023.
- ↩ Calculated from “Annual Work Stoppages Involving 1000 or More Workers 1947–Present” from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
- ↩ Steven Greenhouse, “‘Old-School Union Busting’: How US Corporations Are Quashing the New Wave of Organizing,” Guardian, February 26, 2023.
- ↩ Celine McNicholas, Marc Edayadi, Daniel Perez, Margaret Poydock, and Ben Zipperer, “Employers Are Charged with Violating Federal Law in Nearly 40% of Union Elections,” Working Economics (blog), Economic Policy Institute, posted February 3, 2023, epi.org.
- ↩ Michael Sainato, “‘We Will Figure out How to Fire You’: How Corporate America Is Hitting Back against Unions,” Guardian, January 31, 2023.
- ↩ Ben Casselman and Conor Dougherty, “Want a House Like This? Prepare for a Bidding War With Investors,” New York Times, June 20, 2019.
- ↩ Lauren Cohen, Umit Gurun, and N. Bugra Ozel, “Too Many Managers: The Strategic Use of Titles to Avoid Overtime Payments,” NBER Working Paper no. 30826, nber.org.
- ↩ Hannah Dreier, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.,” New York Times, February 25, 2023, updated February 28, 2023.
- ↩ Noam Scheiber, “U.S. Moves to Bar Noncompete Agreements in Labor Contracts,” New York Times, January 6 2023.
- ↩ Zachary Mider, “Giving Four Months’ Notice or Paying to Quit Has These Workers Feeling Trapped,” Bloomberg Businessweek, January 30, 2023.
- ↩ “Wage Theft,” Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, accessed January 23, 2023, state.mn.us.
- ↩ Lisa Rowan and Korrena Bailie, “How To Spot Wage Theft And What To Do If It Happens To You,” Forbes Advisor, February 2, 2022.
- ↩ Josh Funk, “US Rail Industry Defends Safety Record amid Staffing Cuts,” AP News, May 16, 2021.
- ↩ Michael Sainato, “Railroad workers pressure Congress and Biden to address working conditions,” Guardian, December 16, 2022.
- ↩ Michael Sainato, “Ohio Train Derailment Reveals Need for Urgent Reform, Workers Say,” Guardian, February 23, 2023. See also Michael Sainato, “US Rail Workers Told to Skip Inspections as Questions Mount over Ohio Crash,” Guardian, March 3, 2023.
- ↩ Intan Suwandi, R. Jamil Jonna, and John Bellamy Foster, “Global Commodity Chains and the New Imperialism,” Monthly Review 70, no. 10 (March 2019): 1–24. See also Intan Suwandi, Value Chains (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019).
- ↩ Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
- ↩ Matthew Desmond, “Why Poverty Persists in America,” New York Times magazine section March 12, 2023).
- ↩ Editorial Board, “A Better Form of Capitalism Is Possible,” Financial Times, December 30, 2020.
- ↩ Average compensation (or wage) will be higher than median values when there are some high earners in a group of mostly low earners.
- ↩ Kevin Kelleher, “U.S. Corporations Are Hoarding More and More Cash Overseas,” Fortune, August 3, 2022. For a detailed explanation of the conditions leading to corporate cash hoarding, see John Bellamy Foster, R. Jamil Jonna, and Brett Clark, “The Contagion of Capital,” Monthly Review 72, no. 8 (February 2021): 1–19.
- ↩ Hannah Miao, “Corporate Stock Buybacks Help Keep Market Afloat,” Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2023.
- ↩ Oren Cass, “The 2023 Cost-of-Thriving Index: Tracking the Catastrophic Erosion of Middle-Class Life in America,” accessed February 15, 2023, americancompass.org.
- ↩ Alexandre Tanzi, ”Even on $100,000-Plus, More Americans Are Living Paycheck to Paycheck,” Bloomberg News, January 30, 2023.
- ↩ Calculated from U.S. Department of Treasury, “Federal Revenue Trends Over Time, Fiscal Years 2015–2022, Inflation Adjusted—2022 Dollars,” chart, updated September 30, 2022, fiscaldata.treasury.gov.
- ↩ Osnos, “The Getty Family’s Trust Issues.”
- ↩ Natasha Sarin, “The Case for a Robust Attack on the Tax Gap,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 7, 2021, accessed March 21, 2023, home.treasury.gov.
- ↩ Drew Desilver, “For Most U.S. Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged in Decades,” Pew Research Center, August 7, 2018, pewresearch.org
- ↩ Carter C. Price and Kathryn A. Edwards, “Trends in Income from 1975 to 2018,” RAND Corporation Working Paper WR-A156-1, Santa Monica, 2020, 12 (fig. 2), 40.
- ↩ Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “The Rise of Income and Wealth Inequality in America: Evidence from Distributional Macroeconomic Accounts,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 34, no. 4 (Fall 2020): 3–26.
- ↩ Saez and Zucman, “The Rise of Income and Wealth Inequality in America;” Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019), appendix TC8.
- ↩ Suwandi, Value Chains; John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2016).
- ↩ The COVID-19 pandemic set off a sellers’ inflation in the United States and other countries in which monopolistic firms, initially raising prices in relation to supply chain breakdown, have continued to increase their markups and prices corespectively, generating record profit margins. See Isabella M. Weber and Evan Wasner, “Sellers’ Inflation, Profits, and Conflict: Why Can Large Firms Hike Prices in an Emergency?,” Political Economy Research Institute, Working Paper Series, no. 571, University of Massachusetts Amherst, February 2023, peri.umass.edu; “Unchecked Corporate Pricing Power Is a Factor in US Inflation.”
- ↩ Bernie Sanders, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism (New York: Crown, 2023).