Class Struggle Ever-present

In modern capitalist societies, has meaningful class struggle disappeared? Most theories of American exceptionalism emphasize income advancement opportunities in the United States as it has developed into the world’s richest economy. But the United States ranks not only as the richest society in the world, but also far and away as the most unequal among all advanced industrialized nations. From it earliest years, American capitalism has relied upon massive social and class inequality, despite all rhetoric to the contrary.

You may argue that the working-class struggles once so pervasive across America are now passé, a relic of some bygone era no longer applicable to our present time. Yes, it is true that there are no Ludlow Massacres unfolding today, as in the year 1914, when hard-rock mining strikes were more akin to actual war than to class war. The infamous massace illustrates in its most brutal form the level of wanton violence corporations inflicted upon the working class--on the morning of April 20, 1914, the private army of John D. Rockefeller opened fire on striking mining families sleeping inside their tent colony outside the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Fifteen women and children burned to death and dozens more were injured and maimed as Rockefeller’s murderous army set the camp ablaze and three of the strike leaders were executed on the spot.

Yes, it is true that the captains of industry and finance no longer unleash their mobs, bats and bullets upon the working class; they have instead, since the mid-1970s, operated under a cloak of secrecy within the board rooms of Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable to advance their agenda, one deregulatory cut and lawmaker at a time.

The delusion of a classless America, in which opportunity is equally distributed, is the most effective deception perpetrated by the moneyed elite, who control all the key levers of power in what passes for our democracy. Class struggle is going on all the time in every major institution of society; one just has to learn how to recognize it.

One needn’t embrace the labor theory of value to understand that employers try to increase profits by keeping wages down and getting as much work as possible out of their employees. Workers’ desire for better pay and benefits, safe working conditions, and control over their own time puts them at odds with employers. Class struggle in this sense hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s inherent in the relationship between capitalist employer and employee. What varies is how aggressively each side fights for its interests.

For example, the exact same percentage of wealth was concentrated in the top one percent of individuals in the year preceding the 1929 stock market crash and corresponding Great Depression as it was in 2007 at the onset of the current Great Recession. The top one percent controlled 23.5 percent of the nation’s wealth, compared to the 8-10 percent figure from 1960 to 1975, the high-water mark of the American middle class. From that time forward, corporate interests united to shift the balance of working class forces back toward capital, which is achieved only by dramatically lowering working class living standards and making government serve the interests of those who occupy the board rooms.

Where else does class struggle occur? We can find class struggle wherever three things are at stake: the balance of power between capitalists and workers, the legitimacy of free market fundamentalism, and profits.

The most important arena outside the workplace is government, because it is there that the rules of the game are made, interpreted, and enforced. When we look at how capitalists try to use government to protect and advance their interests--and at how other groups resist--we are looking at class struggle. The only pro-worker dynamic that exists is the reality that the market is the source of working class constraint and that government in the control of people, and not corporations, is the true instrument of freedom.

The majority of corporations seek laws that weaken and cheapen labor. This means laws that make it harder for workers to organize unions, laws that make it easier to export production to other countries, laws that make it easier to import workers from other countries, laws and fiscal policies that keep unemployment high, so that workers will feel lucky just to have jobs, even with low pay and poor benefits.

Capitalists want tax codes that allow them to pay as little tax as possible, laws that allow them to externalize the costs of production (such as the health damage caused by pollution), laws that allow them to swallow competitors and grow huge and more powerful, and laws that allow them to use their wealth to dominate the political process. Workers, when guided by their economic interests, want the opposite.

I should note that by “workers”, I mean everyone who earns a wage or a salary and does not derive wealth from controlling the labor of others. By this definition, most of us are workers, though some are more privileged and/or educated than others. This definition also implies that whenever we resist the creation and enforcement of laws that give capitalists more power to exploit people and the environment, we are engaged in class struggle, whether we call it that or not.

There are many other things capitalists want from government. They want public subsidies of the infrastructure on which profitability depends; they want wealth transferred to them via military spending; they want militarily-enforced access to foreign markets, raw materials, and labor; and they want suppression of dissent when it becomes economically disruptive. So, we can include popular resistance to corporate welfare, military spending, imperialist wars, and government authoritarianism as further instances of class struggle.

Class struggle goes on in other realms. In goes on in K-12 education, for example, when business tries to influence what students are taught about everything from nutrition to the virtues of free enterprise; when labor history is excluded from the required curriculum; and when teachers’ unions are blamed for problems of student achievement that are in fact consequences of the maldistribution of income and wealth in America.

It goes on in higher education when corporations lavish funds on commercially viable research; when capitalist-backed pundits attack professors for teaching students to think critically about capitalism; and when they give money in exchange for putting their names on buildings and schools. Class struggle also goes on in higher education when pro-capitalist business schools are exempted from criticism for being ideological and free-market economists are lauded as objective scientists.

In media discourse, class struggle goes on when we’re told that the criminal behavior of capitalist firms is a few bad-apples problem rather than a rotten-barrel problem. It goes on when we’re told that the economy is improving when wages are falling, unemployment is high, and jobs continue to be moved overseas. It goes on when we’re told that U.S. wars and occupations are motivated by humanitarian efforts rather than economic and geopolitical concerns.

It goes on, too, in the realm of religion. When economic exploitation is justified as divinely ordained, when the oppressed are appeased by promises of justice in an afterlife, and when human capacities for rational thought are stunted by superstition, capitalism is reinforced.

Even though most Americans accept that the political game is rigged, we have long assumed that the choices we make in the economic sphere as to career and home are matters that respond to our wisdom and will. But the banking tsunami that wiped out so many jobs and so much home ownership has demonstrated that most Americans have no real control over any of that, and while they suffer, the corporate rich reward themselves in direct proportion to the amount of suffering they have caused. 

In the real world, the important thing is learning to see the ways that capitalists try to advance their interests at the expense of everyone else. This doesn’t mean that everything in social life can be reduced to class struggle, but that everything in social life should be examined to see if and how it involves a playing-out of class interests.

There is fierce resistance to thinking along these lines, precisely because class analysis threatens to unite the great majority of working people who are otherwise divided in a fight over crumbs. Class analysis also threatens to break down the nationalism upon which capitalists depend to raise armies to help exploit the people and resources of other countries.

Resistance to thinking about class struggle is powerful, but the power of class analysis is hard to resist, once one grasps it. Suddenly, seemingly odd or unrelated capitalist stratagems begin to make sense. To take a current example, why would capitalists bankroll candidates and politicians to destroy public sector unions? Why do capitalists care so much about the public sector?

It’s not because they want to balance budgets, create jobs, improve government efficiency, or achieve any of the goals publicly touted by governors like John Kasich and Scott Walker. It’s because of the profit and power they can gain by destroying the last remaining organizations that fight for the interests of working people in the political sphere, and by making sure that private-sector workers can’t look to the public sector for examples of how to win better pay and benefits.

Other parts of the agenda being pursued by corporate-backed governors and other elected officials also make sense as elements of class struggle.

Selling off utilities, forests, parks and roads is not about saving taxpayers money, it’s about giving capitalists control of these assets so they can be used to generate profits. Cutting social services is about ensuring that workers depend on low-wage jobs for survival. Capitalists’ goal, as always, is a greater share of wealth for them and a smaller share for the rest of us. Clear away the rhetoric that masks class struggle, and it becomes clear that the bottom line is the bottom line.

If class struggle is hard to see, it’s not only because of mystifying ideology. It’s because the struggle has been a rout for the last thirty years as conservative ideas have dominated American politics. The centerpiece of that dominance is the false notion that the market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom. But a more visible class struggle could be at hand. The side that’s been losing has begun to fight back more aggressively, as we’ve seen most notably in Ohio and Wisconsin. To see what’s at stake in this fight and what a real victory might look like, it will help to call the fight by its proper name.

Chris Perry

My Family and I relocated to the City of Lakewood in 2008 to be near my Wife’s extended Family. We have two young children that attend Lincoln Elementary School.

I have over 25 years experience as a community organizer, political campaign manager, director of a non-profit, environmental and social/economic justice writer, lobbyist, demonstrator, non-profit board member and lifelong community activist and volunteer. I am passionate about economic and social justice, environmental causes and identifying and addressing the root cause of social, economic and ecological ailments that undermine our long-term prosperity and sustainability.

In my spare time I enjoy time with my wife and kids hiking, kayaking, gardening, traveling, enjoying all four seasons and exploring all that Lakewood and Northeast Ohio have to offer. I’m also an avid runner and have a passion/addiction for running marathons and 100-mile ultra-marathons.

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Volume 7, Issue 9, Posted 11:56 AM, 05.03.2011