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.