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What's class got to do with it?

October 12, 2007 | Pages 10 and 11

ONE OF the main objections socialists hear is that "old-fashioned" ideas about class struggle are irrelevant in a society where most people are "middle class." ADAM TURL responds that the U.S. working class is the vast majority in society--and that American workers are not pampered and prosperous, but struggling against worsening living standards.

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WELCOME TO the brave new world of U.S. society. Again.

It has become a matter of course every few years that somebody must herald a "new age" in the United States, where everything has changed, especially old-fashioned ideas about class struggle.

Enter Mark Penn, one of Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategists and author of the new book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes.

Penn claims that the "power of individual choice has never been greater" in the U.S. creating a myriad of new group "identities" that supposedly replace the larger "identities"--such as social class--of the past. According to Penn, understanding these identities--from "Second-Home Buyers" to "Shy Millionaires"--is the key to understanding the "balkanized" dynamics of U.S. society.

What else to read

All the themes in this article, along with a history of the U.S. class struggle, are taken up in Sharon Smith's excellent Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. For a concise and clear introduction to the Marxist understanding of class and workers power, see The Meaning Of Marxism by Paul D'Amato.

Michael Zweig's The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret does an excellent job of exposing the mostly hidden realities of class in modern U.S. society. For a useful book on the crisis for U.S. workers today, though from a liberal rather than Marxist perspective, read The Global Class War by Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute.


Recalling his advice to then-President Bill Clinton during the 1996 election campaign, Penn writes: "Previously, almost all Democrats had targeted downscale, non-college workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector. But union membership and manufacturing jobs were shrinking, more people were going to college, and almost the entire electorate in the U.S. was calling itself middle class. If Democrats missed the key trends, they would miss the boat."

Class issues are a thing of the past, according to Penn, and America is "niching" into a thousand different spheres of life. Why? "More people have more disposable resources (including money, time and energy) than ever before," he writes.

The problem is that this is all baloney.

For the majority of people in the U.S., "individual choice" is increasingly constrained by a declining share of "disposable resources." In Penn's world, more and more people are becoming professionals and managers. In the real world, most U.S. workers--70.4 percent, to be precise--do not have a college degree.

From 1979 to 2005, U.S. workers have seen their wages stagnate or decline. The bottom 50 percent of the workforce make $14.29 an hour or less. Fewer employees are getting employer-provided health care and pension plans, and inflation has all but cancelled any recent growth in wages.

In the deindustrializing Midwest--which accounts for much of the decline in union membership--things are worse. From 2000 to 2005, compensation in industries with expanding employment was 23.4 percent less on average than in industries with falling employment.

Perhaps more people can afford iPods and some select consumer products, but fewer can afford health care, transportation, housing, food or the cost of educating their children. For workers, the smorgasbord of the "American Dream" is shrinking fast.

A few people in the U.S., however, are doing very well. Between 1989 and 2000, executive pay increased by 309 percent. In 2005, the median total compensation (including pay, bonuses, perks and stock options) for a CEO at the largest public companies in the U.S. was nearly $14 million every year. For the rich, the world is an expanding buffet of posh products and personal choices.

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THE STARK reality of a highly stratified society in the U.S. is often obscured by confusion about what social class actually means.

The media (and even the labor movement) typically depict the working class with an archetypal image of male, usually white, lunch-pail-toting factory workers--which, of course, misses the vast majority of U.S. workers.

Furthermore, class is often seen as a function of income--if somebody makes over a certain amount, that puts them in the "middle class"--or of certain social attitudes or lifestyles.

But for Marxists, class means something more specific. It isn't reduced to kinds of work, wage levels or certain limited consumer options. Instead, class is a social relationship. The working class--and the capitalist class above it--are defined by their relationship to production and to each other.

Thus, there is little in Mark Penn's book about the millions of people in society who produce the goods and services that he waxes poetic about from the point of view of consuming them. However, the central activity in any society is not the consumption of goods and services, but the work done to produce them.

The source of wealth for the capitalist class as a whole is the profits made through its ownership and control over the businesses, factories, offices, tools, computers and so on needed for production in society. Workers, by contrast, have to work because they don't control these "means of production," to use Karl Marx's term.

This relationship--whether or not individuals control the "means of production," and therefore the conditions of their work--is the decisive factor about social class. Thus, Marx argued that the working class was a "class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who only work so long as their labor increases capital."

By this definition, the working class is much larger than the stereotype of blue-collar workers. It does include workers in manufacturing, but also services, transportation, retail, health care and education; contrary to the stereotype, nurses, airplane pilots and teachers should be considered workers, by this definition. Among the ranks of the working class are a disproportionate number of women, Blacks and immigrants.

According to government statistics, 82 percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of non-supervisory workers. If certain professional jobs are taken out, that still leaves 75 percent of the workforce. Thus, the vast majority of people in the U.S. are working class--a class that doesn't own or control productive property and is compelled to sell its ability to work for wages.

There is a middle class "in between" labor and capital--consisting, on the one hand, of small businesspeople and professionals with control over smaller enterprises that are economically dwarfed by big corporations, and on the other, of managers who exercise some autonomy at work because of their role in coordinating production, but don't have a share in ownership or overall corporate control.

But this "in between" class is a small minority of the population--far smaller than the media depicts by judging social class based on lifestyle and income.

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THE MYTH of a "middle-class America" isn't new.

The idea, sometimes called "American exceptionalism," that there is too much prosperity among workers and too much potential for upward mobility for the ideas of class struggle to take root in U.S. soil began to emerge in the 19th century--largely, in fact, as propaganda against an increasingly combative working class.

U.S. rulers were mortified by a wave of labor battles and the spread of socialist ideas at the end of the century--from the national railroad strike in 1877, to a series of labor uprisings centered in Chicago, to the multiracial New Orleans general strike led by dockworkers in 1892.

This was the period in which the "Horatio Alger" myth was born--named after the author of dozens of novels with the same theme: a poor boy "makes it to the top" through hard work, smarts and a bit of luck. The message was clear: this could be you.

The Horatio Alger myth did connect with certain historical facts. The more or less continual influx of immigrants into the U.S. workforce, a breakneck expansion of the economy and the conquest of Native American land in the West gave a layer of workers a greater chance of becoming landowners or even the managers and owners of a capitalist enterprise.

But these were temporary phenomena. By the early years of the 20th century, more and more serious economic crises and the closure of Western land led to a rise in militancy that fueled the rapid growth of the Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World.

By the 1930s, more and more workers had realized their role in the capitalist system--and with the mass unionization drives of the Depression era, they began to exercise their power to shut it down. They looked less and less to the lottery of individual salvation--and toward collective mass struggle and socialism.

The period after the Second World War gave new life to the "middle-class America" myths. Partly, this was because McCarthyism hounded the left out of the unions and other institutions in society.

But even more importantly, a postwar economic boom lasting several decades provided many workers with steadily rising living standards. The "American Dream" didn't apply to all workers--especially not to African Americans and other minorities--but it did appear to describe the lives of a majority of the working class, allowing "post-Marxist" Daniel Bell to write: "Abundance...was the American surrogate for socialism."

But even as uneven and modest as it was, the "American Dream" was crushed by the 1970s recessions and a renewed offensive by the U.S. ruling class to re-establish the profitability of its corporations and roll back the political gains made by the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. By the end of the '70s, a "one-sided class war" was being waged by U.S. capitalists against workers.

In other words, there have been some periods in U.S. history--the end of the 19th century, and the post-Second World War boom--when the myths of "American exceptionalism" seemed to describe reality. But they didn't endure.

And today certainly isn't one of those periods. The Horatio Alger myth and the "American Dream" are a mockery of what daily life is like for the majority of workers in the U.S. today.

While there are always exceptions, the vast majority of us will die in the same class that we were born into. As author Michael Zweig wrote The Working Class Majority: "[O]f those who were in the bottom 20 percent of income at the end of the 1960s, less than 1 percent made it to the top 20 percent by 1990, while 54 percent remained at the bottom."

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OF COURSE, it's one thing to recognize the size and potential power of the U.S. working class, and another for that class to unite and use its power.

The American socialist Hal Draper wrote, "To engage in class struggle, it is not necessary to 'believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane...The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and aspirations."

However, workers are successful at waging a class struggle when they do "believe in" it. As Marx argued, capitalism brings workers together as "a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle...this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself."

The working class is already a class "in itself"--objectively the victim of exploitation at work and oppression in daily life. However, it is only through the process of struggle--of organizing and fighting back--that workers become fully conscious of their position, and the class "in itself" becomes a class "for itself."

Over the past 30 years, and increasingly so today, the system has failed to satisfy the "economic and social needs and aspirations" of U.S. workers, which leads inevitably lead to class conflict. The outcome of that conflict depends on whether workers organize and act together on their common interests--to make a one-sided class war into a two-sided one.

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