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A Primer on Class Struggle

When we study Marx in my graduate social theory course, it never fails that at least one student will say (approximately), “Class struggle didn’t escalate in the way Marx expected. In modern capitalist societies class struggle has disappeared. So isn’t it clear that Marx was wrong and his ideas are of little value today?”

I respond by challenging the premise that class struggle has disappeared. On the contrary, I say that 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. As the saying goes, every successful capitalist knows what a Marxist knows; they just apply the knowledge differently.

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 and overtly each side fights for its interests.

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 capitalism, and profits.

The most important arena outside the workplace is government, because it’s here 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.

Capitalists want 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 (e.g., 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, generally 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 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 subsidy 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 U.S. 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 U.S. society.

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 bad-apple problem rather than a rotten-barrel problem. It goes on when we’re told that the economy is improving when wages are stagnant, 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 rather than economic and geopolitical concerns.

Class struggle goes on in the cultural realm when books, films, and songs vaunt the myth that economic inequality is a result of natural differences in talent and motivation. It goes on when books, films, and songs celebrate militarism and violence. It also goes on when writers, filmmakers, songwriters, and other artists challenge these myths and celebrations.

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. Class struggle is also evident when religious teachings are used, antithetically to capitalism, to affirm values of equality, compassion, and cooperation.

I began with the claim that Marx’s contemporary relevance becomes clear once one learns to see the pervasiveness of class struggle. But apart from courses in social theory, reading Marx is optional. In the real world, the important thing is learning to see the myriad 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. Even unions, supposed agents of workers, often resist class analysis because it exposes the limits of accommodationism.

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 Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Snyder, or John Kasich. 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, 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 befogging rhetoric, 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. 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 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.

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