Are U.S. workers bought off?

December 15, 2014

Paul D’Amato has been a regular writer from the earliest issues of Socialist Worker. He has completed an expanded and updated version of his book The Meaning of Marxism. The book ends with a collection of answers to the most commonly voiced objections to socialism and Marxism. SW is serializing this section from The Meaning of Marxism--in part five, Paul looks at an old argument against socialism that has taken on a new form.

U.S. workers have it too good to fight

In the period after the Second World War, world capitalism entered an unprecedented boom. For a layer of workers, it seemed that 1930s-style poverty was a thing of the past. Workers could now expect that their children's lives would improve, and their children's after that. Radical ideas seemed unnecessary. Labor unions partnered up with the employers, trading economic benefits for their members in exchange for class peace. The Cold War anticommunist witch hunts, carried through by employers, the state, and the union bureaucracy, purged thousands of socialists and militants from the trade unions and other institutions, severing the connection between the radical traditions of the 1930s and later generations of workers. The tragedy is that the CP contributed to this process. To ingratiate itself with Roosevelt, it applauded repression against other radicals in the labor movement. When it was attacked and vilified by the state and in the unions, it failed to mount any defense. Party activists denied they were members, and some even participated in the redbaiting.

The postwar prosperity prompted a new battery of pundits to herald the end of socialism and the triumph of capitalism, giving rise to new arguments about how workers were too contented to want change. The claim was exaggerated, though it contained a grain of truth. But there were contradictions. The civil rights movement, and later the fight for Black power in the North, was a stark reminder that the "American Dream" never applied to African Americans. These social movements provided the impetus for the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women's movement, and the stirrings of a new labor movement.

The endless prosperity came to an end in the late 1960s, shattering the postwar honeymoon. As crisis began to hit the US economy, and as the social movements peaked, workers began to stir, bucking against both employers and a sclerotic labor bureaucracy that had become proud of its partnership with capital and looked on picket lines with unease. The number of wildcat strikes doubled from one thousand to two thousand through the 1960s. A strike wave in 1970 included a strike by forty thousand miners demanding disability benefits, and postal workers, though legally prohibited from striking, organized a successful two-week national walkout. In the Detroit auto plants, Black workers organized the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and other similar organizations to fight racism and demand rights for Black workers. Socialist ideas became attractive again to a layer of students and young working-class activists. There was a real possibility at this point to begin the process of rebuilding a militant, socialist current rooted in the working class.[49] But there was a problem. The bulk of the radicalized activists were attracted to Maoist and Stalinist politics that turned their back on the working class as "bought off," looking instead to third world national liberation movements for inspiration. Some left organizations did make a turn to the working class, but in the mid-1970s economic recession hit and, instead of provoking more working-class rebellion, heralded the beginning of a retreat.

The balance of class forces shifted decisively toward the employers beginning in the late 1970s. Unions, wages, and the social safety net were ravaged while corporations fed at the state trough, courtesy of the working-class taxpayer. As wages and unionization rates declined, there was a tremendous shift of wealth from the poorest to the richest--shown most dramatically by the 354 to 1 ratio of average CEO compensation to average wages in the United States in 2012 (up by 1,000 percent since 1950).[50] This economic offensive was backed up by a right-wing ideological assault that pinned the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. The 1980s became known as the "looting decade."

The collapse of what passed for socialism seemed another dagger in the heart of the left, already battered and demoralized by the Reagan era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, writes Ahmed Shawki, "Western politicians and the mainstream press were celebrating the miracles of the market system and proclaiming the victory of capitalism over communism. The introduction to the 1989 edition of the annual Economic Report of the President proclaimed, 'The tide of history, which some skeptics saw as ebbing inevitably away from Western ideals...flows in our direction."[51] But the excitement of capitalists and their spokespeople could not conceal the fact that their gain turned out to be a great loss for most people. Continues Shawki, "The much-heralded promises of Western politicians and business leaders at the time of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 have given way to the stark realities of a global capitalist system." The stark reality was that in the United States and the rest of the world, inequality grew to staggering proportions while a handful of people became very rich.

Indeed, the period since 1989 has been one that Sharon Smith describes as "the employers' offensive unhinged"--with record profits accompanying a growing race to the bottom for the working class.[52] Anyone who can argue today that the working class is "bought off" simply does not know what happened to the working class at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. Income inequality, child poverty, and a widespread lack of access to health care are more pronounced in the United States than in all other advanced countries. Conditions that were already appalling before the Great Recession are now even worse, despite the recovery. According to a 2013 report, that gap in wealth between the top 1 percent of US society, defined as families with incomes above $394,000, and the rest of us is greater than it's been in a hundred years. Between 1993 and 2012, the top 1 percent experience real income growth of 86.1 percent, whereas the bottom 99 percent saw its income grow by 6.6 percent. Since the recession, between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent had a 31 percent increase in income, while the bottom 99 percent experienced a 0.4 increase.[53]

The very ferocity of the ruling-class attack was bound to provoke a response. As Shawki notes, the "class inequality and social polarization [that] have accelerated over the decade of the 1990s...form the underpinnings to a new radicalization."[54] Yet that radicalization, emerging from a long period of defeat for the working class and the left, was at first slow in coming. As Shawki relates, "While the collapse of Stalinism opened up the possibility of rebuilding a genuinely revolutionary socialist movement internationally, it also produced enormous demoralization and confusion within the existing left....Thus, in many countries, the immediate beneficiaries of the end of Stalinism were the defenders of capitalism."[55]

A strike by Teamsters in 1997 was one of many false starts in the return of working-class combativity, gaining popular support but failing to spark further class struggle. Then came the "Battle in Seattle" in 1999, the mass antiwar protest of February 15, 2003, in cities across the country, involving hundreds of thousands of people. The radicalization was knocked back on its heels by the September 11 bombings and the subsequent conservative backlash. Then came the mass immigrant rights upsurge in spring 2006. In Los Angeles alone, a million people--mostly low-paid workers, many of them undocumented, formerly invisible--poured into the streets on two separate occasions in March and May to demand their rights. Almost as many protested in Chicago--I witnessed two of those marches. These were the stirrings of the most downtrodden sections of the working class that have for years not been able to see or feel their own power. Since then, there have been more stirrings: the occupation of the capitol in Wisconsin in 2011 by workers resisting attacks on their unions; the Occupy Movement of 2011, a series of occupations of public spaces and parks that spread from Manhattan to the rest of the United States like wildfire; the national outpouring of outrage at the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012; and the Chicago teachers' strike in 2013.

Occupy Wall Street, the first mass expression of anger in the wake of the financial crisis and the bank bailout, expressed a basic questioning of the priorities of capitalism. Writes Jen Roesch, a participant in Occupy Wall Street:

Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and the Occupy movement that rapidly spread across the country in late September 2011, marked a watershed moment in the reemergence of mass struggle and radical politics in the United States. In a matter of weeks, decades of accumulated bitterness and discontent found political expression and began to reshape national politics. Prior to Occupy the media had been focused on the right-wing Tea Party, which most narratives portrayed as a grassroots rebellion against "big government." Almost overnight the national conversation was refocused on the idea of the "99 percent vs. the 1 percent." This message helped the movement gain mass support and provided a left-wing focus for people's simmering anger.[56]

The argument of today's pundits is not that the United States is different, but that the rest of the world is now as exceptional, that is, as closed to a socialist alternative, as the United States. In this depressing view, the United States provides the dystopian model--low wages, poor benefits, and inadequate social services--that the rest of the world is bound to follow. This may be a model that capitalists salivate over, but for the majority it is a model to resist. And they are resisting, from Athens to Buenos Aires, from La Paz to Los Angeles. The single biggest obstacle to the development, or the redevelopment, of genuine socialist currents in the United States and elsewhere--Stalinism--is gone; and the claims of capitalism's great triumph look like a cruel joke. In these conditions, genuine socialist ideas can once again begin to take hold and spread.


49. See Smith, Subterranean Fire, 219–23.
50. "CEO-to-Worker Pay Ratio Ballooned 1,000 Percent Since 1950: Report," Huffington Post, April 30, 2013.
51. Ahmed Shawki, "Between Things Ended and Things Begun," International Socialist Review, June-July 2001.
52. Smith, Subterranean Fire, 298.
53. Emmanuel Saez, "Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (updated with 2012 provisional estimates)," September 2013.
54. Shawki, "Between Things Ended and Things Begun."
55. Ibid.
56. Jen Roesch, "The Life and Times of Occupy Wall Street," International Socialism 135.

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