Continuing my pathetic and desperate effort to avoid for one more day talking about Trump, who will, in the year to come, be my principal topic of blogging, let me extend the analysis I have offered in the last two days of the fundamentally exploitative nature of capitalism. It will have occurred to many of you that my description of the situation of workers, although it may accurately reflect the facts on the ground in 1867, when Capital was published, does not seem to capture much that characterizes modern advanced post-industrial economies today.
One obvious failing of my portrait of capitalism is that it represents workers as completely bereft of ownership of capital, including even the craft skills and tools that weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and ironmongers traditionally possessed. By implication, it also represents workers as pretty much reduced to a homogeneous mass of semi-skilled machine operatives. To be sure, Marx does nod in the direction of class distinctions within the working class by saying that skilled labor can be figured as a simple multiple of unskilled labor. But that clearly does not begin to acknowledge, let alone to analyze, one of the most distinctive features of modern capitalism, namely the sharply pyramidal structure of wealth and income among those who sell their labor for a living, and who therefore qualify as members of the Working Class.
From a formal point of view, a minimum wage burger flipper, a factory worker, a middle manager in a WalMart store, and the CEO of a multi-national corporation are all wage-earners whose labor is exploited by capital, but intuitively it seems that they must occupy different, and in many respects opposed, positions in the class structure of a capitalist economy. And so they do.
In effect, what happens in modern capitalist economies is that some workers acquire what Gary Becker famously called ”Human Capital,” in the form of knowledge, skill, and educational credentials. This capital, for such it truly is, permits them both to appropriate a larger portion of what they produce and also frees them to move from sector to sector in the economy, taking with them not merely their bodies [which I ironically refer to as the workers’ capital in my re-analysis of Marx’s theory] but also this acquired capital.
The result, as [then] Marxist economists Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis argued in an old journal article, is a structure of relative exploitation. Capitalists exploit workers, and workers high up on the income pyramid exploit those lower down. One of the results of this structure of relative exploitation is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to develop working class solidarity, inasmuch as there are real and irreducible conflicts of interest between segments of what is technically the working class.
By the way, the enormous salaries and bonuses paid to corporate executives are something else. They are, in effect, thefts of a portion of profits by the managers, taken from the shareholders and paid to themselves. This is made possible by the structure of modern joint stock corporations. If the plant manager of a nineteenth century firm were to pocket a chunk of the owner’s profits, he would be thrown in jail. Today, he is appointed Secretary of State of the United States.