Posts Tagged ‘class struggle’

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Liberals like to talk about all kinds of social ills and identity-laden tensions—but not class struggle. That’s their persistent and enduring blindspot.

Except, it seems, when it comes to Donald Trump.

Thomas B. Edsall is a good example. Over the years, he’s produced a series of solid, insightful surveys of liberal research and analysis on a wide variety of economic and political topics. But he hasn’t written much if anything about class—until his latest, titled “The Class Struggle According to Donald Trump.”

And, to give him credit, Edsall is right about one thing:

Trump campaigned as the ally of the white working class, but any notion that he would take its side as it faces off against employers is a gross misjudgment.

But his view of class struggle is sorely lacking. First, Edsall starts with and highlights the recent work of Alan Krueger and Eric Posner, who criticize “labor market collusion” on the part of large employers and maintain that the ideal labor market is one in which “workers can move freely to seek the most desirable opportunities for which they are qualified.”

Presumably, if the appropriate reforms were made—for example, scrutinizing mergers for adverse labor market effects, banning non-compete covenants that bind low-wage workers, and no-poaching arrangements among establishments that belong to a single franchise—the problem of class struggle would be solved.

Second, Edsall accepts the idea that, until the 1970s, class struggle in the United States had mostly disappeared or held in abeyance, under the “postwar capital-labor accord.” But there never was such an accord—or, as it is sometimes referred to, a “truce.”

As economists Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard (unfortunately behind a paywall) have argued,

Recent U.S. historical and industrial relations scholarship rejects the existence of such an accord. . .The existence or non-existence of an accord is not only an important matter of history; it has very definite practical effects. During the 1980s and 1990s especially, many in the labor movement and some radical economists sought “cooperation” between capital and labor as a cure for the ills of the American economy, often harkening back to the imagined “golden age.” But if such cooperation is a historical chimera, the time and energy put into “cooperation” might have been better spent in the self-organization of the working class.

Today, under Trump, Edsall and other liberals are attempting to revive that tradition, hoping that reforming the labor market can serve as the basis for more “cooperation” between capital and labor.

Ironically, both Trump and liberal thinkers like Edsall invoke a nostalgia for the exact same postwar period. In the case of Trump, it was a time when U.S. manufacturing successfully exported to the entire world; for Edsall and company, it’s when labor and capital agreed to cooperate and negotiate peacefully.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t intense class struggle during that period—or, for that matter, afterward. Only that the conditions and consequences have changed. And employers have been on the winning side for decades now, long before Trump was elected.

Consider the data Edsall himself cites, which are illustrated in the chart at the top of the post. Since 1970, the wage share of national income (the orange line) has fallen by more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, beginning in 1986, the profit share (the blue line) has risen by 164 percent. For decades now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, a class struggle has been waged by corporate boards of directors and workers—and the working-class has been losing.

It’s true, they’re still losing under Trump. But they also lost during the recovery from the crash of 2007-08. Just as they did in the decades leading up to the greatest crash since the first Great Depression.

In fact, one can argue that capitalists’ remarkable success in extracting more or more profit from workers is precisely what created the obscene levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth that have left the majority of the U.S. population falling further and further behind—and, as a consequence, the election of Donald Trump.

The problem is not, as liberals would like to believe, that exceptional circumstances—market imperfections—have turned the tide against workers. It’s that class struggle is inherent to capitalism, and workers are only useful as creators of the enormous profits captured by their employers.

As I see it, class struggle between employers and workers can’t be solved by reforming the labor market. It can only be eliminated by getting rid of the labor market itself—that is, by moving beyond capitalism.

That’s a real solution to the problem of class struggle that neither Trump nor American liberals are interested in thinking about.

 

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Almost five years ago, I suggested we start calling things by their correct names.

Take the working-class—people who are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor power for a wage. We refer to them as members of the middle-class (which needs to be “rebuilt“) and working families (who need to be helped) or, now as workers’ wages stagnate and the real value of the minimum wage declines, as the “feral underclass” (especially in theUK, in the aftermath of the riots) or the working-age poor (as in the recent AP report on the demographic composition of those living in poverty [ht: ja]).*

What’s the problem with calling it as it is? What are we afraid of? It’s the working-class, and its member are becoming increasingly impoverished. People who work for a living, or want a full-time job but can’t find one (whether or not they’re actively looking for one, since it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a decent job), represent nearly 3 out of 5 poor people. . .

So, from now on, in political and economic discourse, let’s call things by their correct names. The vast majority of people in the United States are members of the working-class. And they’re getting shafted.

Well, it seems, Americans are still struggling with the notion of the working-class (and of class more generally).

The best Donald Trump was able to come up with were “the great miners and steel workers of our country.” (Really? Trump wants to send American workers back into the mines and steel mills? Those jobs are mostly gone, and that’s a good thing.) Even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders weren’t able to refer to the working-class, preferring instead to use terms like “working people,” “hard-working families,” “workers,” and “working families”—although, in their case, when counterposed to corporate profits and CEOs, it was pretty clear they were referring to the growing class divide in the United States.

As Tamara Draut [ht: ja] explains, the American working-class is in fact changing.

the blue-collar, hard-hat, mostly male archetype of the great post-war prosperity — is long gone. In its place is a new working class whose jobs are in the now massive sectors of our serving and caring economy. And so far, neither Trump nor Clinton have talked about this new working class, which is much more female and racially diverse than the one of my dad’s generation. With Trump’s racially charged and nativistic rhetoric, he’s offering red meat to a group of Americans who have every right to be angry — but not at the villains Trump has served up.

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“Long gone” may be an exaggeration. There are still more than 12 million workers employed in manufacturing in the United States (out of a total of 150 million employed people). And, according to the Economic Policy Institute (pdf), the American working class (which they define as people with less than a bachelor’s degree) is still a majority non-Hispanic white.* (It is projected to become majority people of color in 2032.)

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What we have, then, is an increasingly diverse working-class that together, “regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender,” has been receiving wages that fall far short of increases in productivity for more than three decades.

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The result, as I showed earlier this month, is that

the average income of the bottom 90 percent fell between 1979 and 2015 (from $34.6 thousand to $33.2 thousand), while the average income of the top 10 percent rose (from $149.1 thousand to $273.8 thousand) and that of the top 1 percent soared (from $370.2 thousand to over $1 million).

That dramatic rise in inequality—along with, as Dustin Guastella explains, “the rise of precarious labor, the proletarianization of white-collar work, the rise in real unemployment, [and] the persistence of underemployment—are what have propelled class issues back into the public debate.

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That combination is certainly what has convinced Millenials, the members of Generation Y, to see themselves less as middle-class and more as working-class. They may be better educated than their predecessors and for the most part they’re not working in traditional working-class jobs (like manufacturing or other blue-collar tasks) but their low wages and precarious employment make them identify with the working-class—”a feat in and of itself considering the narrow American cultural understanding for who qualifies as working class.”

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The fact is, as many Americans self-identify as working-class as they do middle-class, which is “striking given how uncommon the term working class seems to be in both the media and political speech these days.”

As I argued a year and a half ago,

Our political language has served to ignore the working-class status of most so-called middle-class Americans and, as a result, to confine the working-class (understood as workers without a college education), when it is mentioned at all, to a relatively small segment of the population. In other words, the working-class has come to be defined as the working-poor and the middle-class as something else.

As I see it, we’ll get a more accurate representation of our economic and political landscape if we redefine what we mean by the working-class. The fact is, what others understand to be working-class and middle-class actually have a lot in common. They may have different levels of education (high school, a year or two of college, and a four-year college degree), different color collars (blue, pink, and white), and work in different sectors (manufacturing and services, private and public) but they’re all pretty much in the same boat: they are forced to sell their ability to work to someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. That’s a very large part of the population. It basically excludes two relatively small groups: the capitalists at the top (who get the profits) and managers and supervisors (who manage the labor of others and get a cut of the profits).

So, we’re talking about 80 or so percent of Americans who, in one way or another, are members of the working-class.

They know it and we know it—even as mainstream economists, politicians (both liberal and conservative), and social surveys downplay or deny the existence of a large and increasingly distressed American working-class.

The next question then is, what kind of language are we going to use to characterize the not-working-class, the class that takes and otherwise lives off the surplus produced by the working-class? Right now, we have the “upper class” and, more recently, the “1 percent” and the “billionaire class.” Clearly, we need something better, a term that describes not just the rung at the top of the income ladder but a place in relation to that of the working-class, thus giving us a pair of positions that define the central relationship within the current economic system.

It’s going to take more than a bit of struggle. But, once we have that term, we’ll be well on our way to calling things by their correct (class) names.

 

*And that’s one of the reasons the presidential race right now is so close. Trump leads among white registered voters without a college degree, a significant portion of the working-class, by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.

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Is 2015 going to be the year of class?

It certainly seems so, to judge by the widening gap between the wage and profit shares (the wage share in blue on the right scale of the chart above, the profit share in red on the left scale) and the worries recently expressed by politicians, economists, and journalists.

There is, of course, Mitt Romney on income inequality and the “scourge of poverty” (because Republicans have nowhere else to go, having been boxed in by Barack Obama on most other issues, but they’re going to have a hard time going against their pro-business agenda, especially with Romney as the standard-bearer).

And Obama himself, who apparently is going to propose closing the multibillion-dollar tax loopholes used by the wealthiest Americans, imposing a fee on big financial firms, and then using the revenue to benefit the middle-class (but he’s unlikely to get much bipartisan support in Congress for any kind of serious moves on those issues).

Plus we have the spectacle of Larry Summers (together with Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls) openly expressing his concern for the future of democracy if capitalism cannot deliver broad-based prosperity, which may give rise to “political alienation, a loss of social trust, and increasing conflict across the lines of race, class, and ethnicity.”

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But, as Mike Whitney [ht: ja] reminds us, the problem of class war is not a recent phenomenon: the most recent chapter started in the mid-1970s, when “everything started going down the plughole.” Once wages became detached from productivity,

the rich progressively got richer. They used their wealth to reduce taxes on capital, roll back critical regulations, break up the unions, install their own lapdog politicians, push through trade agreements that pitted US workers against low-paid labor in the developing world, and induce their shady Central Bank buddies to keep interest rates locked below the rate of inflation so they could cream hefty profits off gigantic asset bubbles. Now, 40 years later, they own the whole shooting match, lock, stock and barrel. And it’s all because management decided to take the lion’s share of productivity gains which threw the whole system off-kilter undermining the basic pillars of democratic government.

That’s where we stand today, in the midst of a class war. And, as everyone now acknowledges, only one side—a tiny minority at the top—is winning.

Folks can add The Organizer (the incorrect translation of I Compagni), the 1963 film by Italian writer-director Mario Monicelli, to their list of economic representations of class and class struggle.

I didn’t know of this film until last night, when I discovered it in a local video store. It was a quick read of the description on the case that made me curious: it was made in 1963, and therefore 3 years before The Battle of Algiers); it’s about working-class struggles in Turin during the late-nineteenth century, and it stars Marcello Mastroianni; and it is described both as neo-realist and an example of commedia all’italiana. What’s not to like?

Most important, it’s quite good. So is the essay by J. Hoberman.

While the movie’s American title puts the emphasis on the star, the original Italian title stresses a sense of solidarity. So does the movie itself, which is essentially an ensemble piece. “Monicelli has integrated the star into the drama, counterpointing him against the others instead of reducing them to background music,” [Dwight] Macdonald noted. “For considerable periods, we don’t see the organizer at all, and when he does reappear—often materializing with a magical yet quite logical opportuneness—[he is] first among equals, rather than the usual star-dictator.” Recurring deflationary bits of business throughout suggest the futility of individual action: one irate worker confronts his boss, pulls out his knife, and can’t open the clasp; another makes a fiery speech in a dialect that his comrades don’t understand.