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Cooking the Books: Class Struggle From Above

Some supporters of capitalism are getting worried. They are beginning to wonder whether Marx might not have been right. The latest is Michael Schuman in an article ‘Marx’s Revenge: How Class Struggle is Shaping the World’ in the Business & Money section of Time (25 March):

‘With the global economy in a protracted crisis, and workers around the world burdened by joblessness, debt and stagnant incomes, Marx’s biting critique of capitalism — that the system is inherently unjust and self-destructive — cannot be so easily dismissed. Marx theorized that the capitalist system would inevitably impoverish the masses as the world’s wealth became concentrated in the hands of a greedy few, causing economic crises and heightened conflict between the rich and working classes. “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole,” Marx wrote. A growing dossier of evidence suggests that he may have been right.’

The Marx quote comes from the last-but-one chapter of Volume 1 of Capital on ‘The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.’ The meaning of this passage has been a subject of controversy amongst those in the Marxist tradition. Some have interpreted it as meaning that Marx expected the working class to become more and more  ‘impoverished’ in an absolute sense as capitalism developed, ie. that they would come to have less and less to live on. Others (including us) argued that it meant only that workers would become worse off relatively, ie. in relation to the amount of wealth they produced that went to the capitalist class.

But irrespective of any long-term trend (which clearly has not been towards falling real wages), in the boom/slump cycle that is built-in to capitalism, real wages rise in the boom and fall in the slump, as Marx was well aware. This is what is happening today in the present slump: real wages are falling while the rich have continued to get richer.

‘The consequence of this widening inequality,’ Schuman noted, ‘is just what Marx predicted: the class struggle is back ... Society has been perceived as split between the ‘99%’ (the regular folk struggling to get by) and the ‘1%’ (the connected and privileged superrich getting richer every day).’

Actually, the class struggle never went away. It’s built-in to capitalism. What is happening today is that governments, acting in the interest of the capitalist class, have started an offensive to reduce our standard of living and we workers are trying to fight back. Not too successfully, as the increased unemployment that occurs in a slump has reduced our bargaining power.

Marx predicted, says Schuman, that ‘as the proletariat woke to their common interests, they’d overthrow the unjust capitalist system and replace it with a new, socialist wonderland.’ But, he reassures his readers, so far ‘Marx’s revolution has yet to materialise. Workers may have common problems, but they aren’t banding together to resolve them. Union membership in the U.S., for example, has declined through the economic crisis, while the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled.’

As French labour historian Jacques Rancière pertinently pointed out to him, the protestors ‘aren’t aiming to replace capitalism, as Marx had forecast, but merely to reform it. ‘We’re not seeing protesting classes call for an overthrow or destruction of socioeconomic systems in place,’ he explains. ‘What class conflict is producing today are calls to fix systems so they become more viable and sustainable for the long run by redistributing the wealth created.’

True, sadly. But that won’t work as capitalism cannot be reformed to operate in the interest of the vast majority. The workers will still have a world to win.