The condition of the working class in the United States

An organizational split in the trade union movement; a brutal, predatory, imperialist war; a massive and systematic assault on civil rights; the largest mass mobilization of workers ever on a directly political issue; a steady erosion of abortion availability; a vicious onslaught on workers’ rights and conditions; and, underneath it all, deepening economic contradictions – these developments beg, demand, nay scream for an anti-imperialist analysis of the condition of the working class in the US and the way forward for it. So, when Monthly Review (MR)1, the influential US socialist magazine, devotes its July-August 2006 issue to ‘Aspects of Class in the United States’,2 we are entitled to expect some insights. After all, as editor John Bellamy Foster writes: ‘By focusing on class and class struggle our underlying purpose is clear: not simply to interpret the world but to change it.’

There are some good articles – concrete or historical, and relevant. Vogel’s ‘Harder Times’, about undocumented workers, and Lavelle and Feagin’s ‘Hurricane Katrina’, together with Luce and Brenner’s ‘Women and Class’ and ‘The Pedagogy of Oppression’ by McLaren and Farahmandpur. Vogel takes a recent study of employment in Los Angeles to show the extent of the informal ‘off-the-books’ economy. This has been steadily growing, to 15% of the LA workforce, around 700,000 workers. Most of these are undocumented immigrants, predominantly women. An interesting aside is that some 35% of informal employees are legal residents. Forced out of their homeland by the impoverishment exacted by imperialism, immigrant workers are forced into the US informal economy. By lowering wages, intensifying work and eliminating benefits, the informal economy is a mechanism for super-exploitation within the imperialist country. It also helps restrain the struggle of workers in the formal economy. Extended to the US as a whole, this informal economy probably measures around 8-10% of the workforce – between 10 and 13 million workers nationwide.

‘Hurricane Katrina’ is an all-too-short survey of the historical background to the tragedy in the slave roots of New Orleans and shows the obstacles that the ruling class are throwing up to rebuilding in any other way than as a racist city. ‘Women and class’ is a good survey of the state of working women after the last 40 years of organized struggle for women’s rights. Unfortunately, though, it ignores the steady erosion of access to abortion for working class women. ‘Pedagogy’ briefly shows how the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program is leaving children in public schools to the nurturing clutches of the military, nutrition by McDonald’s and the warped priorities of ‘objective testing’.

Yet the volume fails to tie the objects of these essays – undocumented workers, the black community, women workers, working class youth – into any overall analysis of class in the United States. Interesting as they are, they seem peripheral afterthoughts to the ‘real’ issue of class.

This issue of MR comes on the heels of a debate on class in the United States which has been led by the three leading bourgeois newspapers: the Los Angeles Times,3 the Wall Street Journal4 and the New York Times.5 From anecdotal reporting through to careful original statistical analysis, these bourgeois papers demonstrated that class exists in the US, that mobility between classes is limited, that unequal distribution of income and wealth is extreme and has been growing, that individual wealth depends less on work and more on who’s your daddy?

Michael Perelman (‘Some Economics of Class’) cycles through the numbers showing the absolute decline in income of the mass of the US population. For the bottom 90% of the population, income peaked at $28,540 in 1973 and has steadily declined to $25,862 in 2002. At the other end, he shows the increasing concentration of income and wealth amongst a tiny minority: the top 0.01 % of taxpayers, some 13,400 families, was about the same as the poorest 25% of the population – about 18 million families. Corporations have benefited fabulously during this period. This ‘represents the largest transfer of wealth and income in the history of the world – far larger than what occurred during either the Russian or Chinese revolutions’(p26). But much the same point was made by the bourgeois newspapers, if less dramatically.6

Perelman observes that the ruling class is doing this ‘to extract more surplus value from ordinary people’ (p27). But then, in an extraordinary conclusion, thrown in at the last minute, he adds, ‘the right wing is undermining the very foundation of the economy’. But this is a profit-hungry capitalist economy: extracting more surplus value from workers helps this economy. It is not this or that policy which is undermining the economy but the normal inherent operation of capitalism itself, which continually drives the economy into crisis due to its tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Suddenly responsibility is lifted off the capitalist class as a whole and shifted onto its ‘right-wing’. This creates illusions in some ‘left-wing’ of the ruling class. Elsewhere Michael Zweig yearns for ‘a progressive revival of the Democratic Party’(p125), while Tabb regrets that ‘Unfortunately, the other major party [the Democratic Party] has not been advance its own prospects’ (p9 – my emphasis).7

Zweig does some calculations which, he claims, shows that the working class are 62% of the labour force, capitalists just 2% and the middle class some 36%.8 The strikingly obvious question is: if the gap between workers and capitalists is just due to a ‘right-wing policy’ and if workers are a ‘substantial majority’, how come George Bush and the Republicans get elected? How come there isn’t fighting in the streets? This does not occur to Zweig, who is concerned to downplay economic differences: ‘these divisions are not best understood as simply the difference between “rich and poor”.’

However, other ‘differences’ also bother Zweig. He complains about getting ‘trapped in confusions about race and los[ing] sight of class’ (p118). He criticizes excessive emphasis on black suffering during Katrina: ‘Neglecting white suffering only contributes to racial resentment and undermines the political unity that both black and white, working- and middle-class residents will need.’ (p121) Here ‘racial resentment’ can only mean on the part of whites, and the concept of ‘political unity’ is of blacks joining whites, not whites abandoning racist divisions and uniting with blacks around their demands. Let’s keep race out of it, so no one gets upset! And, while we’re at it, why not gloss over the ‘differences’ between the working and the middle class? ‘[M]ost Americans identify themselves as members of the middle class so political appeals to the middle class are appropriate for building winning messages.’(p123) Lo and behold! By the end, even capitalists are invited to the party with hopes ‘of a progressive revival of the Democratic Party’ and off we zoom to Neverland with Peter Pan and Wendy where we’ll find ‘a party of broad vision, not just a party of interest-based policy proposals’. Awww, quite warms the heart, doesn’t it? Only Willie Wonka and the Oompaloompas are missing.

This voyage into nonsense land starts the moment Zweig casts loose from the moorings of Marxism. Instead of defining class in terms of the collective relationship to the means of production, he substitutes individual power. ‘The working class are those with little personal control over the pace or content of their work and without supervisory control over the work lives of others.’(p117) But nobody has personal control over the pace or content of their work. Capitalism is an anarchic system which no-one controls: capitalists are compelled to behave the way they do as much as the rest of us. Capitalists own it and will fight to the death to try to keep it, but they don’t control it personally. So ‘personal control’ is not some objective category, but a subjective perception.

Like natural scientists discovering, not inventing, the physical laws of the natural world, Marx discovered, through scientific analysis of the commodity, the social and historical laws governing the capitalist system. Instead of scientific analysis, Zweig invents the arbitrary criterion of power because it seems more useful. But for Marxists something is not true because it is useful, but useful because it is true. What at first seems useful to Zweig ends up being useless to the working class. What, we ask again, stops the working class from overthrowing the system? Zweig’s theory glosses over divisions in the working class, divisions responsible for holding it back.

Bourgeois critics of Marx often claim that Marxism is disproved because of a growing middle class. Many Marxists have responded by asserting that the working class is a majority (Zweig, p117, Perelman, p18). In fact, Marx predicted that growing productivity of labour would lead to a relative decline in the working class:

‘Although the number of workers grows absolutely, it declines proportion to the part of society not directly involved in material production or indeed engaged in no kind of production whatsoever.’9

Far from predicting ‘the disappearance of the middle class’, Marx predicted the exact opposite: ‘This is in fact the course taken by bourgeois society.’10 Ricardo, Marx argued: ‘forgets to emphasise... the constantly growing number of the middle classes, those who stand between the workman on the one hand and the capitalist and landlord on the other.’11

These middle classes ‘are a burden weighing heavily on the working base and increase the social security and power of the upper ten thousand.’12 Living on the product of the productive worker, their ‘interest in his exploitation coincides more or less with that of the directly exploiting classes.’13

Indeed (‘usefully’ for left wing academics!) Zweig discovers ‘a new academic working class’(p118). So, salaried educators with retirement benefits, medical coverage and receiving the equivalent of $30-50 per hour are on a par with un-benefited hourly workers in part-time jobs receiving $8.50 per hour! Indeed, if the educator has an earning partner (typical) and the hourly worker is a single parent (quite typical) the distance becomes even more glaring. It is precisely representatives of this kind of middle-class – who insist that the problems are just with a right-wing, that we should shut up about racism, pander to middle-class prejudices and hope for ‘a progressive revival of the Democrats’ – who are holding the working class back.

The introduction quotes Lenin:
‘Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it.’14

This would seem very clear: that to understand class, we need to understand, specifically, the place of different groups in social production, of their property rights, and ‘consequently’ the way in which they acquire and distribute wealth. In analysing the working-class, that means examining where it is employed; how, specifically, it is exploited; how this has been affected by ‘globalisation’; its internal differentiation – especially the labour aristocracy, the divisions within the class and the role of immigration; the growth of service workers and the changing composition of the middle classes. Sadly, MR missed an opportunity to start laying the groundwork for a materialist analysis of class.
Steve Palmer

1. Monthly Review, 58, 3 July-August 2006 Double Issue
3. Peter Gosselin’s ‘New Deal’ series, beginning 10 October 2004 and continuing. See
4. Wall Street Journal, 13 May 2005 to 20 July 2005. See (subscription required).
5. New York Times, ‘Class matters’ series, 15 May 2005 to 12 June 2005. See Also published as a book, Class Matters (Times Books, New York, 2005).
6. New York Times, Class Matters, chapter 12: ‘The Richest Are Leaving Even The Rich Far Behind’; Los Angeles Times, 10 October 2004, 12 December 2004.
7. Marx, of course, regarded the Democratic and Republican parties (‘two great gangs of political speculators’) as essentially interchangeable (see the introduction to Civil War in France).
8. See also Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (ILR Press, Ithaca, 2000).
9. Marx, Collected Works Vol 30, p303
10. Theories of Surplus Value (TSV) Vol 3,p 63.
11. TSV Vol 2, p573
12. TSV Vol 2, p573.
13. TSV Vol 2, p571
14. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 29, p421


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