Class Warfare 101

Starting around 1848, socialists flooded the world with pamphlets and manifestos explaining the basics of “wage-labor” vs. “capital.” Yet here we are in the 21st century, having to go back to basics — even though one would think that the dire economic situation for most people today “speaks for itself.” However, given the recent misguided detour into side-issues — notably, police-style racism vs. “anti-fascism” (whatever happened to “anti-globalization”?) — a basic reminder about the primacy of “class” seems to be in order.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, beginning over 30 years ago, socialism was peremptorily consigned to the proverbial “dustbin of history.” Marxism, we were told by innumerable think-tank “intellectuals,” was a failed experiment. Maybe a handful of the intellectually curious still go back and look at socialist-Marxist literature — a body of writings once pored over by countless millions committed to “world revolution.”

With the exception of students of Russian history, few will remember how, as the Czar abdicated in March of 1917, a democratic, multi-party Constituent Assembly was established. By November, the Bolshevik power-seizure, engineered by Lenin and Trotsky with the substantial assistance of the German high command, dismantled the Assembly, banned the other (mostly socialst-democratic) parties, and jailed without trial many dedicated socialists whose positions displeased the dictator Lenin. Freedom-of-the-press was immediately drastically curtailed — the one notable exception being New Life, the popular paper edited by famed novelist and humanistic socialist Maxim Gorky. Before his paper was eventually banned, Gorky wrote innumerable articles blasting the anti-democratic, thuggish totalitarianism imposed by Lenin. Yet in Russia, the Warsaw Bloc, and many African dictatorships, this Bolshevik-style of elite-bureaucratic, single-party and totalitarian “socialism” was imposed — only to eventually fail. The bogus valorization of “the people,” an abstraction, contrasted with the subjugation (and sometimes murder) of very real, if intractable, individuals. Nineteenth-century Marxists, responding to the vestiges of serfdom (and its transformation into a proletariat), were generally less concerned about civil liberties per se.

In this brief article, I merely want to remind readers of a few precepts of Marxism which remain as relevant as ever. (Lenin also admittedly offered useful ideas about “monopoly capitalism” — ideas later developed by Baran and Sweezy (1960s) and the editors of the Monthly Review.) In reality, as economic conditions for at least 80% of the world’s population have worsened in recent decades, Marxist explanations seem especially compelling once again.

To begin at the beginning — the raison-d-etre of capitalist enterprises. How do the big shareholders of major corporations maximize profits? By the 20th century, relentless marketing of their “products” — with its penultimate perfection in the all-pervasive conditioning of everyone with multi-media exposure. As the passive, beleaguered individual increasingly feels insignificant, she correspondingly idolizes prestigious consumer-goods (Marx’s “commodity-fetishism”). But in every industry, rival corporations are forced to engage relentlessly in “discounts”) and price-cutting–in the never-ending effort to grab more customers. The age-old solution (escalated in the Clinton administration): mergers, acquisitions — and eventual “oligopoly.” A major corporation, by eliminating and/or swallowing almost all its primary competitors, can then, of course,  raise prices back up. The result?: more customers, better profit-margin, reduced advertising costs, and so on.

The next step: break unions. Claim that minority workers, whether immigrants or not, are stealing jobs from the dominant ethnic group. Nip in the bud any emerging sense of shared “class solidarity.” Invest heavily, along with other industries, in a relentless campaign of anti-union propaganda; confused employees, even overtly threatened with reprisals, will then typically reject union organizing. But with such low, stagnant wages, offer employees various schemes for “low-interest, easy credit” — allowing them the illusion of such things as home “ownership.” (Such illusions are often quickly shattered.) Of course, by the late 20th century, corporations “racing-to-the bottom,” scouring the globe in the search of the cheapest possible labor-force (i.e., poor, economically desperate people).

Back in the U.S. and EU, superannuated workers suddenly realized that they actually “owned” very little. With higher unemployment, tens-of-millions of the desperate were, of course, forced to accept whatever low-wage job appeared on the horizon. Part-time, contingent labor verged on becoming the norm, as corporations temporarily “used-then-discarded” employees in order to maximize even more the omnipotent “bottom-line.” By the early 21th century, even workers in the Tech sector — the one dramatically expanding, relatively new industry — were reeling from one such setback after another.

These days, Silicon chieftains are finding this COVID crisis of 2020-21 to be yet another “golden opportunity” to reduce the labor-force of actual human beings. Even before the “Luddite” rebellion by weavers (ca. 1811), every step in automation has deskilled legions of workers, depriving them of the income needed for survival. In our time, with frequent saturation-points of consumer “demand,” big corporations have focused even more on “reducing labor costs” as a major, if not the major, source of increased profits. Today’s Tech giants, as arrogant as the steel-and-oil barons of yore, are in the business of promoting all kinds of “labor-saving” products, from online “education” (goodbye teachers) to robotics (goodbye everyone?). Marx of course described all these trends in detail, noting the inevitability of downward mobility into poverty for such deskilled and displaced millions of persons. But one doubts whether even Marx could ever have envisaged a world “owned” by 1000-or-so billionaires?

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.