By ANN ROBERTSON and BILL LEUMER
[Note: The article below was first published in the October 14, 2019, issue of CounterPunch magazine. It is reprinted here with the authors’ permission.]
The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels famously begins with: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” The United States is no exception, although for many decades it was depicted as a classless society. Later they add: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”
One might add that the basic categories with which we formulate our ideas also come from the ruling class. If these categories are uncritically adopted, they can deflect our social reflections and blunt our criticisms.
In particular, the corporate media either avoid the concept of “class” or make it virtually meaningless. The New York Times restricts “working class” to workers who lack a college education and typically perform manual work, while “middle class” designates more educated workers performing “white collar” jobs. The “middle class” is then situated between the “working class” and the rich.
But this division only obscures the deep convergence in the life experiences and interests of these workers. Those who lack higher education can make more money than those with college degrees, if they have a strong union. Many teachers with college degrees are barely scraping by. All workers share fundamental interests: the desire for job security, a comfortable wage, full health care benefits, a secure pension, job safety, and to be treated with dignity at work. It makes much more sense to merge these groups into a single working-class category.
Not surprisingly, a term like “capitalist class” is missing in most mainstream publications. But people who own large businesses and employ workers have their own set of common interests and are highly organized. They want to be able to lay off or fire workers easily. They want regulations on corporations reduced in order to compete effectively. They are usually anti-union because they would like to suppress wages, again for competitive reasons. The antagonistic class interests between workers and capitalists then give rise to an ongoing struggle in pursuit of their respective interests.
This inclusive definition of the working class along with the identification of the capitalist class help clarify other categories and social developments.
For example, when describing different political ideologies, the corporate media use categories like “left,” “liberal,” or “progressive” on one end of the spectrum and “right” or “conservative” on the other end. These are multi-class categories. For example, only 26 percent of the population identifies as liberal. Many capitalists believe that the role of government should be kept to a minimum and are therefore labeled conservative, but many other capitalists believe that government can play a positive role in society by providing a social safety net. They are considered “liberal” or “progressive.” The working class is divided on questions of immigration, gun regulation, and restrictions on abortion rights.
Jeffrey Sachs, professor at Columbia University and a special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General and certainly no Marxist, has argued liberal and conservative categories are secondary:
“The greatest problem in Washington is not polarization but lying. The legislative machinery has ground to a halt not because of the great divide between liberals and conservatives but because of the great divide between the lobbyists and the people. The lobbyists want things that are against the public interest, and they use lies and secrecy to try to win.”
Sachs goes on to identify the four most powerful lobbyists in Washington: big oil, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, and big health care. These lobbyists, of course, represent corporate interests. And they stand in stark opposition to the interests of “the people,” who are overwhelmingly working class. In other words, Sachs is basically describing class divisions between capitalists and the working class. Without clear class definitions the class basis of this conflict is obscured.
With “class” as a fundamental analytical category, class conflict is brought into relief. In the 1930s the working class rose up and through massive demonstrations and strikes succeeded in pressuring politicians to impose restraints on their employers. By winning the right to unionize, workers were able to expand unionization until 35 percent of the workforce was covered. This was a major cause of the rising standard of living of the working class during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
However, during the 1970s the corporations launched their counter-offensive. They started playing hardball with union organizing and gradually succeeded in reducing the unionized workforce to its current rate of 10.5 percent. The standard of living of the working class has experienced a steady decline.
- Between 2003 and 2013 the net worth of the median household dropped 36 percent.
- Between 1999 and 2014 income of the median household dropped by over $4,000 a year.
- In 2013 labor compensation as a share of the economy dropped to its lowest point since 1948.
- Involuntary part-time work has grown 40% since 2000.
- The number of hours people in a household work has gone way up as women have entered the labor market to help the family make ends meet. In 1960 slightly more than 40 percent of women between 25 and 54 were in the workforce. In 2018 the number was slightly less than 80 percent. The need for both adults in the family to work has placed significant strain on the household.
- Traditional pensions, which are a relatively secure retirement plan, have dropped. In the past they covered almost half of the workforce. Now they cover less than one-fifth. Instead, more workers have 401k retirement plans, which usually provide less money for retirees and, because they are tied to the stock market, are not guaranteed. Hence, it is now predicted that half of California retirees will face “significant economic hardship” when they retire.
- Inequalities in wealth have been constantly expanding. In the 1940s and ’50s, 73 percent of newly created wealth went to the bottom 90% of the population. Now virtually all new wealth goes to the wealthiest 10% of the population.
While the corporate media have supplied plenty of statistics in terms of median household income and household net worth, they fail to connect the decline of the working class with class struggle. It takes someone like the billionaire Warren Buffett to bring this concept into public discourse: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Because the corporate media have slashed the definition of the working class, the term “socialist” has been rendered almost meaningless. These media giants typically label Bernie Sanders a socialist. Even genuinely socialist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America embrace Bernie Sanders as one of their own and refer to him as a socialist. But Bernie Sanders emphatically repudiates social ownership of the means of production.
Here is how he describes his politics:
“The right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment. “That,” he continued, “is what I mean by democratic socialism.”
“So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this, I don’t believe the government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal. I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.”
For Sanders, socialism is little more than a New Deal program. But somehow this qualifies as socialism.
The classic Marxist definition of socialism includes as an essential component the socialization of the means of production. If large corporations are allowed to persist, the working class will be unable to democratically run the economy. Workers will still take orders at work. Corporations will have the power to impose their will on the political process with their abundant financial resources. Even if corporations are broken up and downsized, the laws of capitalism with its winner-take-all competition will eventually result in the reappearance of large corporations. Competition means the winners grow by devouring the losers.
Instead of labeling Bernie Sanders a socialist, it would be much more accurate to define him as a “progressive capitalist,” where “progressive” means wanting to introduce reforms that will help the working class within the bounds of capitalism.
Lacking a clear class analysis and an appreciation for the class struggle that has resulted in the decline in the standard of living of the working class, Bernie Sanders’s role in the rise of “socialism” has been greatly exaggerated. Some have credited Sanders alone for the astronomical growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Others have gone so far as to credit Sanders for the wave of teacher strikes.
But while Sanders might have played the role of a catalyst in the DSA growth, he is not the cause. Instead, the looming environmental catastrophe which capitalist politicians refuse to abate, students graduating deeply in debt, the high cost of housing in major U.S. cities, steadily rising health care costs, and the longstanding decline in the standard of living of the working class have led the youth to question the merits of capitalism.
The declining teacher salaries that have forced teachers to take on second jobs is the major factor driving teachers out of the classroom and onto the picket line, not Bernie Sanders. Sanders’s growing popularity itself is the result of these economic developments.
Without a clear class perspective, socialists can also be led to believe that working within the Democratic Party will secure important gains for the working class. Although the Democratic Party is sometimes called a “friend of labor” and unions have given Democrats generous contributions in an attempt to buy favors, it is a capitalist party both in form and content. It programmatically embraces capitalism.
As for its structure, it is not a membership party where the rank and file are the highest governing body. Rather, it operates as a collection of atomized individuals who often act in isolation from one another and sometimes in competition with one another. The decision to run for office is made by the isolated individual. Democrats who are financially wealthy have an advantage when running for office, and if they win, they become part of the Democratic Party leadership. In essence, the party’s structure mirrors the social relations engendered by capitalism. It is top-down and individualistic. But workers derive their power from collective action where policies are determined by a democratic vote and where everyone has an equal voice. The Democratic Party excludes this form of activism, and Sanders’s campaign is no different.
The Democratic Party can brag that it is the lesser evil when compared with the Republican Party. But the results of the working class relying on the Democratic Party have been disastrous: The standard of living of the working class has been in a steady decline whether the Democrats or the Republicans hold the reins of government. And this should come as no surprise. After all, the objective role of the Democratic Party is to politically disarm the working class and keep it disorganized.
Even Robert Reich, life-long Democrat and Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, described the Democratic Party in these terms (November 2016):
“It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump. … Democrats have occupied the White House for 16 of the last 24 years, and for four of those years had control of both houses of Congress. But in that time they failed to reverse the decline in working-class wages and economic security. …
“They stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran on the Democratic Party ballot line in New York with politics that did not exceed reforming capitalism. But she made it clear she was a member of DSA. When she won, the DSA membership shot way up. Accordingly, many in DSA have concluded that the road to socialism lies in the ballot box, even using the Democratic Party ballot line.
Reforms to capitalism can be achieved incrementally, but they are always tenuous. They exist only until the capitalist class decides to mount a counter-offensive. However, the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with socialism require a complete break and a seismic overturn. The working class must see its interests as directly opposed to those of the capitalist class. It must overthrow the capitalist class, take control of the state, transform it into an instrument that functions democratically, and then proceed to construct a new society that operates in the interests of the vast majority.
As Marx and Engels insisted: “The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself.” Working within the Democratic Party and electing candidates who are content with reforming capitalism will only create barriers to building socialism.
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Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association.
Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are members of Democratic Socialists of America and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org