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Friday, June 12, 2015


For several days now I have been posting reflections on what socialism might look like were it to evolve from capitalism in America.  It is a source of some embarrassment to me that the lengthy comments offered by several readers have been more interesting, and in some ways more knowledgeable, than my posts.  But, as my wife pointed out to me some while ago when I was fretting about how I would occupy myself in retirement, this blog now is my work, so there is nothing for it but to soldier on.  I have several times said that I prefer to start from facts about things as they are currently in America, rather than seeking wisdom in statements made by Marx a century and a half ago, so let me begin with some elementary statistics easily lifted from the Internet. 

In the first years of the twentieth century, when my father was a boy and my grandfather was a young leader of the Socialist Party in Brooklyn, roughly fifty percent of the workforce in America was in some sort of agriculture.  A century later, this proportion has declined to two percent.  Stop just for a moment to think about the significance of this change.  The family farm was the norm for half of the American population at the start of this period, and has virtually disappeared by its end, inasmuch as agriculture is now mostly big business.

In the middle of the twentieth century, 32% of the working population was in manufacturing.  This was the heyday of the big industrial unions, of the CIO and the AFL.  Two years ago [the latest figures I could find], 7.5% of employed American men and women were in manufacturing, a decline of eight million workers during a period in which the population soared.  There are now a bit more than one hundred million men and women in service jobs in America, and not quite twenty million in “goods producing” jobs [a Bureau of Labor Statistics category.]  Indeed, there are actually more people in local, state, and federal government jobs than in manufacturing – some twenty-one million last year.

Unionization has of course plummeted.  Equally significantly, the composition of the ranks of union members is totally changed.  In 2014, 35.7% of public sector employees were unionized, as compared with just 6.6% of private sector employees.

Note, by the way, that all of these statistics exclude men and women in the military, and also men and women who are incarcerated -- the latter group roughly twice the size of the former.

These statistics, which like all such data are country specific, fail to capture the fact that manufacturing is now a global operation, with almost all of the things Americans buy made somewhere else.  What is more, the digital information revolution is making even service jobs outsourceable.  We are all familiar with the experience of calling a bank or credit card helpline and finding ourselves talking to someone in a Mumbai call center.  We are less aware of the fact that the X-Ray and MRI tests we have when we visit a doctor may also be read by much less well paid, but equally competent, experts in India.

If there is to be a socialist transformation of America, it should be obvious that it will not take the form of a concerted uprising by men and women working in factories, in mines, or on farms.  There simply are not enough of them anymore.  What is more, any transition must begin with a labor force that is segmented by salary and wage level, by education, and by work experience.

What does this all mean?  I am genuinely unsure, but I have some thoughts, which I will try to organize tomorrow or the next day.  Right now, I must change into slightly less grubby clothes to take my wife to dinner at Brasserie Balzar, one of our favorite local restaurants.


classtruggle said...

It is clear that the question ‘what will socialism (supposedly) look like’ in the future cannot be separated from the question ‘how will it come about.’ This point which you seem to agree with, and which is reflected in the content of your posts so far, was echoed by Marx and Engels in the CM one hundred and sixty seven years ago: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” We will see how many observations or ‘statements made by Marx a century and a half ago’, are still being taken up by you (and us) now.

As an aside, the concept 'utopian socialism' was introduced and discussed in the CM by Marx and Engels as a way to describe socialist and quasi socialist intellectuals who designed imaginary blueprints or visions of a socialist future. The communists, on the other hand, including Marx and Engels, never speculated on the detailed organisation of a future socialist or communist society; concerning themselves with the sole objective of building a workers' movement strong enough to overthrow capitalism. It is not so much a matter of seeking wisdom from communists like Marx or quoting him -- generations of communists and socialists (including most anarchists), especially since the formation and collapse of the IWMA, have debated these issues and have taken clear stances on them. So t issues here are: can one speculate how socialism will look like and if the answer is yes, then what role does/will the working class/workers’ movement play.

This brings me to my next point, Marx and Engels also observed another key difference between the communists and utopians, namely that the latter don't generally think class struggle is necessary:

"The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society? Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel."

classtruggle said...

Another related difference between the two has to do with the question of the significance of working class conditions and demands for the general class struggle. To all the attempts of the Bakuninists to dissociate and separate economics from politics, the communists in the First International led by Marx replied that the economic movement and political activity are inseparably intertwined [this point was important as a means to define correctly the relationship between, say the trade unions and the Party]. Given the attention you pay to the nature of work today in the United States and the general conditions of the working class there, we can see that you are following in the footsteps of Engels [who became a communist one year before Marx did and whose book on English working class conditions was the one that in 1845 converted/motivated Marx to the theory of the economic foundations of the revolution] and Marx/the communists, who paid a lot of attention to the issue of the length of the working day [I will point out why this issue is the most important one for socialism], the purchase and sale of labour power, the value of labour power, the degree and forms of exploitation of labour power, etc. which are also given a lot of space in the first volume of Capital. Marx did not overestimate the significance of working class demands or labour legislation, but clearly understood as Engels had (and you have) that "the condition of the working class is the starting point of all social movements today."

It is for this reason that at the meeting of the General Council of the IWMA, Marx recommended to the Congress in Geneva that an inquiry be made into the condition of the working class according to the following scheme:

1) Occupation; 2) age and sex of the employed; 3) number of employed; 4) hiring and wages; 4a) apprentices; 4b) wages, time or piece work, whether paid by middlemen -- weekly, yearly, average earnings; 5) hours of work: hours of work in factories, hours of home work given out by small scale employers, if the business is carried on in this way - night work, day work; 6) meal time and treatment; 7) conditions of places of work, overcrowding, ventilators, want of sunlight, use of gas light, etc., cleanliness; 8)nature of occupation ; 9)effect pf employment upon physical condition; 10) moral conditions, education; 11) character of trade, whether seasonal or more or less uniformly distributed over the year, whether output is destined principally for home or for foreign consumption.

classtruggle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
classtruggle said...

This list was quite extensive and shows that Marx and the communists worked on the question of the situation of the working class and discussed only "those points which allow immediate agreement and concerted action by the workersand that give direct nourishment and impetus to the requirements of the class struggle and the organisation of the workers into a class” (Marx’s letter to Kugelmann).

Now despite the fact that Marx consciously took up the position not to speculate on the detailed organisation of a future socialist society (for good reasons) where he does write a little bit about socialism or freely associated labour, he (correctly I think) focuses on one thing: labour time. With the ‘abolition of the capitalist form of production’, Marx writes in Volume One, the ‘reduction of the working day to the necessary labour-time’ would mean that necessary labour time would ‘expand to take up more of the day.’ And this, Marx says, happens for ‘two reasons: first, because the worker’s conditions of life would improve, and his aspirations become greater [meaning his needs or ‘means of subsistence’ expand], and second, because a part of what is now surplus would then count as necessary labour, namely the labour which is necessary for the formation of a social fund for reserve and accumulation’ (Fowkes trans., p.667).

And if we go to Chapter 48 in Vol III, The Trinity Formula, we will find on page 958-9 (in the Penguin Edition) another nice passage on freedom as the end of a labour process with humans overwhelmingly tied to material production.

"In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite."

The passage ends: 'The reduction of the working day is its basic principle.' By which we assume that Marx means the shortening of the working day is the first step towards time for oneself, free of the necessity of producing for material needs.


classtruggle said...

And there is that foot note cited at the very end of Chapter 10, quoting a Factory Inspector as saying: “A still greater boon is the distinction at last made clear between the worker’s own time and his master’s. The worker knows now when that which he sells is ended, and when his own begins; and by possessing a sure foreknowledge of this, is enabled to prearrange his own minutes for his own purposes.” (l.c., p. 52.) [the words in italics are mine because they are also the last carefully chosen words Marx picked out to end the famous chapter on the Working Day. Marx intentionally focuses on the length of the working day (labour time) as opposed to say wages, working conditions, etc, in chapter 10 for a very good reason which I leave to the reader to figure out why]

and then there is this footnote as well:

“By making them masters of their own time (the Factory Acts) have given them a moral energy which is directing them to the eventual possession of political power” (l.c., p. 47).

It is no surprise why Marx was so immensely impressed by the publications generated by the British state around issues concerning working class conditions and demands, and the impartial role of the various professionals (Factory Inspectors) involved. As he commented to his German readers in the preface to the first edition of Capital:

"The social statistics of Germany and the rest of Continental Western Europe are, in comparison with those of England, wretchedly compiled. But they raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of the Medusa head behind it. We should be appalled at the state of things at home, if, as in England, our governments and parliaments appointed periodically commissions of inquiry into economic conditions; if these commissions were armed with the same plenary powers to get at the truth; if it was possible to find for this purpose men as competent, as free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English factory-inspectors, her medical reporters on public health, her commissioners of inquiry into the exploitation of women and children, into housing and food."