What’s capitalism got to do with it?

Posted: 30 November 2015 in Uncategorized


There’s a great deal to recommend in the series on inequality in the United States edited by Josh Marshall, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

The first two installments are available, on the effects of the decline of labor and the politics of inequality, with two more promised in the weeks ahead, on inequality numbers and Piketty’s best-selling book.

In the first installment, Rich Yeselson examines the role of the U.S. labor movement, first, as the country’s main defense against income inequality (from the New Deals of the 1930s into the 1970s) and then, after “the entire business class of the United States, large and small companies alike, wished to bust American unions and when, given a chance to do so, seized it,” as a weakened and disappearing force in opposing rising inequality. The fact is, even as trade unions have declined in significance in the United States, they have become more integrated (in terms of both gender and race/ethnicity) —perhaps better prepared than before for a resurgence in the years ahead.

John B. Judis, in the second installment, discusses the paradox of Americans’ growing concern about inequality along with their opposition, apart from increased in the minimum wage, to most government-sponsored programs to decrease inequality.

attempts to use government to reduce inequality mean different things to different groups of Americans. Some Americans see these efforts as meeting a great moral challenge, but others see them as surreptitious initiatives designed to get them to subsidize people who either don’t deserve subsidies or who should be subsidized by those who can better afford it.

Both essays offer useful insights into the long U.S. march toward increasing inequality and deserve a full read. I am also looking forward to the final two installments.

However, I have to admit I’m a bit worried about a series that seems to shy away from any extended discussion of capitalism itself. Of course, unions and politics are important in explaining growing inequality in the United States, especially from the mid-1970s onward. But we also need a history of capitalism itself, how it has changed and morphed during that period (in the United States and around the globe), such that it has generated a growing surplus that has been created and appropriated by the boards of directors of large corporations and then distributed to others, both inside and outside those corporations. Without that surplus, that extra value created by workers (in the United States and around the world), there wouldn’t be a growing profit share and a larger concentration of national income by the top 1 percent. That’s the share of income concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of enterprises and households, which they have been able to use to make the distribution of income even more unequal—precisely by attacking unions and distracting the voting public from supporting policies and programs to end the grotesque inequalities they themselves are the victims of.

So, what does capitalism have to do with inequality? As it turns out, everything.

  1. […] other day, I recommended the first two installments in the TPM series on “the road to […]

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