Posts

Democracy Against Capitalism: Class

Chapter 3 of Ellen Meiksen Wood’s book, Democracy Against Capitalism, takes up the issue of class. She says that class can be defined in one of two ways: “either as a structural location or as a social relation.” Kindle Loc. 1504, ital. in original. The first way takes an index and divides it into parts. For example, we rank everyone by income, then call the lowest quintile the lower class, the next three quintiles, the middle class, the 81-99% the upper middle class, and the rest the upper class.

The second way is to define class in terms of relationships, the relations of the members to the means of production, relations among themselves, and relations with members of other classes. In this treatment, the working class is people who have no direct access to the means of production and only have their labor to sell. Marx wrote:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.

I saw a folk musical recently in Chicago called Haymarket, about the Haymarket Affair, a general strike that turned violent in Chicago in 1886. The play opened with one actor singing a union song, Solidarity Forever. She encouraged us to join in the chorus, which, of course, I did. It was a great way to demonstrate how organizers of that day worked to instill a sense of comradeship among workers in different industries, a sense that they had a lot in common, a sense that they formed a class in opposition to the capitalists, a/k/a the “greedy parasites”. This is the last element of class in Marxist thinking. The class can be seen objectively, which Marx called a class-in-itself, but when the members become aware of their status as class members and begin to struggle together for a common end, Marx called it a class-for-itself.

This last point is illustrated by E.P. Thompson’s book, The Making of the English Working Class, which Wood discusses at length. The basic class structure is in place long before the members begin to understand that they are a class. People similarly situated in the relations of production experience them in class ways. Kindle Loc. 1614. Shared experiences bring them together. Ultimately the members of the class become conscious of the conflicts of interest and aggravation that are making them miserable, and those become the grounds of struggle. The struggle eventually leads to confrontation. Marx argued that in the long run those confrontations lead to socialism as the only form that gives workers a voice.

Wood identifies the relations of production in capitalism as exploitation, domination and appropriation. Neoliberal capitalism has jacked up these three relations at the expense of all workers. For example, meat companies use government regulations to increase the exploitation of meat cutters by increasing line speeds. Payday lenders suck money out of military families and other low income people, protected by the totally not corrupt Republican Mick Mulvaney. For domination, look at the way Amazon warehouse workers are treated. As to expropriation, look at the latest research on the impact of concentration of businesses on wage rates. Or just check out this simple chart, discussed here. The blue line represents corporate profits in constant dollars; the red line is wages in constant dollars.

The concept of class has received “remarkably little elaboration, either by Marx himself or by later theorists…”, Kindle Loc 1519, but it’s possible to identify several. Capitalists own the means of production and control access to them. The working class owns no assets and has no access to the means of production other than through individual relations with capitalists. They own only their own labor, and rely on their ability to sell that labor to stay alive and reproduce. Slaves don’t own themselves or their labor. Professional people, small business people and artisans own a little property and use it to produce goods and services for sale. Many of them are dependent on the capitalists in the financial sector through loans and leases, which compromises their independence as a class.

In America, everyone is middle class. Barack Obama appointed Joe Biden to chair a multi-agency Middle Class Task Force. The Department of Commerce was the only agency to respond, as I discussed here. The Department offered the following definition of middle class:

Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income. We assume that middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.

There’s something fabulously American about that definition, so focused on the individual and so utterly indifferent to the context in which people try to achieve their aspirations. Also, who doesn’t want that stuff? The vacuity of the definition makes it clear that we as a nation are not willing to confront the implications of class.

In our highly differentiated economy, it isn’t easy for people to understand that the unpleasantness or worse that they endure in their jobs is common to everyone. That makes the nastiness feel like something specific to the job, a bad manager, bad policies or other excuses. We don’t notice appropriation because the capitalist pumps money out of workers using the “market”, and producers think it’s normal for the capitalist to grab all the profits. Somehow US workers don’t recognize that they are being exploited. They think their long hours and wrecked evenings and weekends and lack of vacations and medical and personal leave and lousy pay and benefits are just fine.

Wood has a different idea. She thinks that capitalism has successfully separated democracy from the economy. Everyone agrees that the government should be controlled democratically. People are taught that the economy is and should be controlled by private interests, and that private control should be sanctioned and enforced by government. Employers exercise domination and control in ways that would not be acceptable if done by the state. Employers restrict exercise of political rights in ways that are forbidden by the Constitution to the government. Fear of losing our income silences most of us at least occasionally.

Wood argues that the economy should not be separated from democratic control. She doesn’t offer a specific mechanism; she thinks that people will eventually demand change, and that the new controls will spring from democratic control over the State. She quotes E. P. Thompson who asked:

By what social alchemy did inventions for saving labour become agents of immiseration? Kindle Loc. 1739.

We can’t begin to solve the problems capitalism creates until we all come to grips with this question. And we almost know the answer, even if we haven’t verbalized it yet. It springs from the relations of the capitalist mode of production: exploitation, domination, and appropriation.

Principles Of Business Enterprises Part 8: Conclusion

The general plan of The Principles of Business Enterprises by Thorstein Veblen is to state several ideas about the way business operated in the Gilded Age, with explanation and examples, and then to examine the logical outcomes of the operation of these principles. There is no grand theory, just observation, description and discussion. Two of the principles are that businessmen operate solely to generate a profit, and that to achieve efficiency, the entire social life of working people had to be remade in the image of the ideal production worker.

Veblen identified the basis for the operation of business as the concept of property as applied to industrial production. The idea is that just as the products of the blacksmith and the cooper belonged to them to do with as they saw fit, factory owners were entitled to all of the production of the factory to do with as they saw fit. The entire system of the US is devoted to the protection of property, so naturally businessmen dictate government policies in all areas that affect their profits.

These ideas manifest themselves in our society. Businesses cooperate to insure efficient operation, and in the process help make sure they all profit. Education is focused on preparing the human capital to find a job, because the alternative is to starve. The press devotes itself to the maintenance of the illusion of democracy, while the actual practice is that federal and state legislatures and courts protect the property claims of capitalists and pave the way for increased profits from operations both in the US and around the world. Businesses charge whatever they can get away with, free from interference by government or enforcement of antitrust laws. If it creates more profit, businesses stop producing, and stop hiring, regardless of the impact on the community.

What Veblen saw in 1904, we see today. The debts of corporate persons are easily discharged in bankruptcy, but the debts of human beings are pursued by armies of lawyers and government officials. Banks are bailed out, but homeowners are ruined. Private schools cheat people, but those people have to pay student debt till they die. No one goes to jail for wrecking the economy or any other elite crime, but heaven help the guy caught with a bit of pot.

This is all the logical outcome of an understanding of the idea of property. Locke said that when artisans mixed their labor with physical things, they were entitled to own the finished product. In exactly the same way, Veblen says, the factory owner is said to be entitled to own the goods produced by the factory. But Veblen is quite clear that Locke’s theory doesn’t explain why this should be, because the industrial age requires most people to work in a coordinated system and a supporting social structure; and the amount produced in this system is orders of magnitude larger than any individual artisan could produce.

His line of thinking leads naturally to questions about distribution of the profits of production. Why exactly is the owner of a factory entitled to all the profits? Why exactly is the owner entitled to pay the workers as little as possible? After all, the owner of a steel mill can’t produce anything without coordinating with many other manufacturers, miners, farmers, transportation companies, and an army of workers all of whom show up and work cooperatively in each of these enterprises, and a social structure that supports all of this action. The owner cannot produce anything unless society is organized for industrial production. In today’s terms, app developers have nothing to do if there is no electricity or no city wired for cable. This is what Elizabeth Warren was talking about when she said

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Neither Warren nor Veblen pushes forward into talking about ownership of property. But that isn’t true of everyone. One of the things that confounds the defenders of the neoliberal consensus of pundits and mainstream economists it the apparent willingness of younger voters to consider socialism as a logical alternative to unregulated capitalism. Most explanations are based on the experience of the young with neoliberal capitalism. Here is Anis Shivani via Salon:

But millennials, in the most positive turn of events since the economic collapse, intuitively understand better. Circumstances not of their choosing have forced them to think outside the capitalist paradigm, which reduces human beings to figures of sales and productivity, and to consider if in their immediate lives, and in the organization of larger collectivities, there might not be more cooperative, nonviolent, mutually beneficial arrangements with better measures of human happiness than GDP growth or other statistics that benefit the financial class…

The idea is to move beyond money, interpreted in particular ways by capitalism, as the sole means of determining what is valued in human activity. Just because the means of production can be owned collectively does not mean—and indeed should not mean—that the state should be the owner.

Well, maybe. Cities own water systems and the pipes and sewage systems that provide us with water and sewage disposal. No one really believes it would be good to let the private sector suck profits out of us for something as important to staying alive as water. Why shouldn’t cities own other necessary and useful things, like electrical and cable lines? When you think about the willingness of private businesses to squeeze more money out of us in their relentless pursuit of profits at any cost, it’s easy to see why public ownership of specific companies might be a good idea.

Locke and his adherents, including the Founding Fathers, claimed that Locke’s idea of property rights was a Natural Law, a Natural Right. It was designed by the Almighty to direct humans along the path of righteousness. Today we don’t think like that. Veblen called Locke’s theory metaphysical, by which I think he meant philosophical as opposed to practical. Many of us demand certainty about such things and find it in bibles of one kind or another, including Locke, but many of us are more open to other ways of thinking. Veblen has a much more worldly manner, and I think he had a strong touch of the American philosophy of pragmatism, the school exemplified by John Dewey.

I don’t think I fully understand this book, not just because the language is sometimes difficult, but because I don’t think I understand the tone correctly. For example, he seems dismissive of socialism, but accepting of the trade union movement, and of the attitude of the workers whose acceptance of unbridled property rights was weakening. He notes several times that businessmen with their archaic natural law ideas control the nature of social life for workers, and exercise outsize influence on government, and their utter amorality. He mentions the bad effects each of these has on the community. Some books are like that; you have to read several works by the author and scholarly commentary to understand them fully.

Nevertheless, I plan to soldier on to the next book, Security, Territory and Population, a group of lectures by Michel Foucault. I’ve already read some of his works, including Discipline and Punish and The Birth of Biopolitics, so I at least have a running start.

The Theory of Business Enterprises Part 7: Cultural Changes

In the early chapters of the book, Thorstein Veblen describes industrial productive methods and the changes they require of workers. In Chapter 9, he describes the effect of those changes on the workers and on businessmen who own the factories. In general, the businessmen become more attached to a system of thought based on natural rights. Natural rights law, especially as related to ownership and property, is the basis for their control of the productive sector; and it gives them the tools they use to continue that domination. Natural rights ideas were formulated in a much earlier era, when the dominant mode of production was the individual fabricator, the individual handicraft worker. Natural law was embedded in the entire social fabric, Church, State, and community. These institutions remained strong in the early part of the industrial age, up to 1904 when Veblen wrote.

Veblen says that factory workers were moving away from the natural law ideas, which, after all, were a metaphysical formulation, grounded in the social structures of an earlier day and an earlier system of production. Their lives were now ruled by gauges and measurements, by cause and effect. This is the form of inquiry behind the development of the sciences which drove the technology of the machine age. It tends to undercut the traditional forms of thought that underlie the conventional thinking of the businessmen, forms which Veblen calls metaphysical.

Veblen says that this newer kind of thinking led the working classes to lose respect the natural rights forms of thinking, and specifically for property rights and the individual ownership of industrial property. In turn, this helped the working class to see itself differently, as expressed in the trade union movement, and in socialist and even anarchist thinking. For the most part, he thought that the trade union movement would reinforce the business interests by making only those demands necessitated by the changes that the industrial process made in the lives of the workers. They sought standardized wages and regular hours and other accommodations necessary to make their lives more pleasant, and did not carry the ideas of cause and effect or the indifference to property rights to their logical extreme as socialist theory would. He adds a long and unfriendly discussion of socialism.

When he gets back to the cultural changes, one of the issues he identifies is changes in domestic relations. The traditional family becomes a less spiritually important institution.

What appears to be in jeopardy, should the socialistic defection gain ground, is the headship of the male in the household economy. The family, as it has come down from the medieval past, under the shelter of the church, is of a patriarchal constitution, at least in theory. The man has been vested with discretionary control in domestic affairs.

As the discussion continues, it becomes apparent that the driving force isn’t socialist theory, but real changes in the possible ways to live created by the machine age. It isn’t just the family, it’s the Church, and even patriotism that are called into question. Mere formal or conventional justifications do not suffice for people of any class whose thought processes are governed by theories grounded in cause and effect.

The machine technology is a mechanical or material process, and requires the attention to be centred upon this process and the exigencies of the process. In such a process no one factor stands out as unequivocally the efficient cause in the case, whose personal character, so to speak, is transfused into the product, and to whose workings the rest of the complex of causes are related only as subsidiary or conditioning circumstances. … The process is always complex; always a delicately balanced interplay of forces that work blindly, insensibly, heedlessly; in which any appreciable deviation may forthwith count in a cumulative manner, the further consequences of which stand in no organic relation to the purpose for which the process has been set going. The prime efficient cause falls, relatively, into the background and yields precedence to the process as the point of technological interest.

Veblen said that this was happening to the greatest extent in the large industrial towns, and less so in the smaller towns and the countryside. Veblen is obviously interested in the culture of the workers; he ignores the conventional thinking of the businessman, and focuses on cultural changes in the vastly larger class of working people. Veblen thought that cultural growth in the machine age would be “… of a skeptical, matter-of-fact complexion, materialistic, unmoral, unpatriotic, undevout.”

In Chapter 10, Veblen takes up the future of the businesses. He thinks they will collapse because they become “fiscal ways and means”, subservient to a militaristic state which itself will collapse under the pressures of war. That didn’t happen.

As it turned out Veblen was more or less right that there were changes in the working classes in the larger industrial towns, and less so in the rest of the country. He ignored the Grange Movement and a good bit of the populist revolution on the farms, though. Even so, that was enough change to produce the New Deal and a highly efficient war machine in WWII, and a strong working class throughout the 50s and early 60s. By that time, socialism was wiped out in the US, and the union movement began to deteriorate. The war industry picked up strength first under Kennedy and LBJ, and then at higher levels beginning with Reagan, the second of his predictions began to seem more plausible. But it won’t be counteracted by an organized and strong working class, because there isn’t one.

We seem to be lurching from one crisis created by the elites to the next crisis created by the elites. We could use some ballast.