Socialists are more than familiar with the old nonsense concerning a “middle class”. Such people have always been nothing more than relatively better-paid wage slaves, just as susceptible to the vagaries of capitalism’s boom and slump economics
A spectre is haunting America— the spectre of the middle class. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed the US to be a “middle-class country”, North Americans have anxiously sought to moralise and ennoble their notion of class struggle:
“Most were regular employees of major corporations like McDonnell Douglas, Grumman and Hughes Aircraft. If they didn’t go to work, they risked losing their livelihoods, their houses and their cars. They were, in fact, not middle-class at all in the Marxian sense of the word. They were working-class, but, unlike similar people in Britain or Germany, they called themselves middle- class” (‘Who Killed the Middle Class?’ John Cassidy, The New Yorker, 16 October 1995).
But by some evil design of fate, this middle class seems to have died at the hands of the Reaganauts and the Bushmen according to Cassidy: “Living standards have fallen or stagnated for the majority of Americans, while a small minority have enjoyed a bonanza. These trends appear to be intensifying regardless of which political party is in office.” The rich have of course got richer (the top one percent of families were worth 78 percent more in 1989 than they had been ten years earlier, according to the Census Bureau). No guesses out of whose hides it came: “Twenty years ago, the typical chief executive officer of a large American company earned about 40 times as much as a typical worker did. Now he cams 190 times as much, according to Graef Crystal, an expert on executive compensation.” The not-so-invisible hand of the economic system may have put on a velvet glove for college graduates but has shown a mailed fist to those who have gotten no further than high school, while it has, with a typical capitalist sense of fairness, ruthlessly put the squeeze on dropouts and recent immigrants.
Naturally, not everyone is wringing their hands over this development:
“Many experts argue that this is just what the doctor ordered . . . if companies are using their new-found profits to fuel a capital spending boom rather than pay artificially high wages to a workforce that views itself as entitled, what better way to keep the US competitive in a cutthroat global economy? . . . Corporate America is once again in fighting trim, able to compete with the best of the world’s producers” (‘The Wage Squeeze’, Aaron Bernstein, Business World Week, 17 July 1995).
All of this “good behaviour”, as Business World Week calls it, derives partly from capital’s shedding of assets to promote a recovery and partly from a self-serving capitalist belief that “re-engineering” promotes productivity, which in turn will (someday) push wages up:
“Already, shareholders are enjoying a juicy stream of dividend payments and capital gains. Historically, efficiency improvements have led to real wage and income gains for the average employee. ‘In the long run, labor productivity will rise, and eventually, this will put upward pressure on wages, ’says former Federal Reserve Board Governor Wayne D. Angell. ”
Only if workers regard a given rate of profit as “natural” can they swallow the assertion that their wages are “artificially high”. “The rise of global competition may have encouraged managers to break unions and invest in computer technology,” argues John Cassidy in The New Yorker. “Similarly, the threat of corporate relocation and the growth of cheap immigrant labor may have contributed to the weakness of labor unions.” Given such interactions, however, who is kidding whom about wages following productivity up? If “cheap immigrant labor” and corporate relocation to low-wage countries are themselves all about the desirability of reducing capital’s “wages bill” for the sake of profit margins, why should managers overlook the other obvious opportunity of breaking unions that promote “artificially high” wage levels? Wages are simply supposed to stay low no matter what any sweet-talking economist may say about them.
Strangely enough, this doctrine that wages follow productivity up (like the expectation that it should have started happening already) does not seem to include anything about the “plummeting” of wages (New Yorker, 16 October 1995). Unless the elementary rules of mathematics have been revised, ordinary addition and subtraction ought to show that wages which have gone down (as they have) and then are supposed to rise again can hardly show a significant net gain (if any). Or is it that only the wages of productive workers are supposed to follow increases in productivity up the scale? In that case, the declining numbers of production workers in the United States would tend to inhibit any overall net increase in wages for workers in all sectors.
But when all is said and done, the concept itself is really nothing more than a propaganda device to prove that workers don’t need unions. The whole productivity-wages relation argument in effect rigorously excludes the need for the action of any “external” agencies like trade unions. Embarrassment over the failure of wages and salaries to rise as predicted seems nevertheless to have made no dent in the thinking of corporate execs. To the capitalist class it is all just a matter of “corporate restructuring” for the sake of “economic efficiency” in securing an “open economy” and “free trade”. As a spokesman for Mobil Oil acidly put it: “There’s a very intense determination in executive suites across America not to give away hard-fought improvements. It may be a long time before this shakes through and wages rise” (Business World Week, 17 July 1995). Meanwhile, “in the past three years, wages have continued to fall while productivity, profits, and stock prices have all soared”.
With inimitable Yankee aplomb, the writer of the Business World Week article assures us that “longer term, of course, the argument is that as economies grow overseas, they will buy more US-made goods, creating more jobs and demand here. Over a truly extended time frame, overseas wages will rise to meet ours”. But overseas wages will, only “rise to meet ours” if overseas workers can impose some much-needed restraint on their employers’ appetite for profits by organising effective trade unions. Businessmen can accept this during the boom phase of the business cycle; but to the extent they ultimately succeed in busting unions (as they do when the “longer-term” rate of profit threatens to sink), they will be quite happy to settle for that, too.