Kicking Ass for the Working Class

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

Kim Moody

More Unequal:
Aspects of Class in the United States
Edited by Michael Yates
New York, Monthly Review Press, 2007, 203 pages, $14.95 paper.

THERE IT WAS, staring at me from the AFL-CIO’s very own blog: a black sign with bold red letters saying “KICKING ASS FOR THE WORKING CLASS,” signed AFL-CIO. Surely they meant to say “working for,” or in SEIU-speak “uniting” “working families” or “working people” or some other euphemisms for struggle and class. Had the decline and split of organized labor pushed our otherwise moderate business union leaders to new extremes?

Not really. But the blog contribution did note that the AFL-CIO had invited Mike Zweig to addressed folks at the AFL-CIO headquarters on the importance of class. Among the things he told them was that “without acknowledging class, we’re fighting a one-sided class war.” Further, “When I’m talking about class, I’m talking about power.”

Did the church say “Amen?” I don’t know, but it’s a message that the U.S. labor movement needs to hear if it’s going to turn things around.

To further their education, the leaders and activists of today’s embattled unions as well as those from other movements would do well to pick up the new book, edited by Michael Yates, More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States.

Yates has put together a collection of highly readable essays covering a broad range of topics concerning class in the United States. This follows naturally from his last two books, Why Unions Matter (1998) and Naming the System (2003), both rooted in a Marxist perspective.

More Unequal, like his last book, looks at class from a global vantage point integrating discussions of race, gender, and class, and the emergence of an international capitalist class. The book contains good information on education and increasingly unequal income and wealth, and includes some very subtle contributions on the relation of race to class, one of the most difficult problems facing Marxist analysis.

The personal histories of class as experienced by Yates and Angela Jancius give us a good look at just how different that experience is for the generation of the 1960s and 1970s and that of today — as well as what has remained the same. There is an excellent piece on gender and class by Stephanie Luce and Mark Brenner, which analyses what has and hasn’t changed for women since the 1960s.

The book concludes with a number of points on class by Mike Zweig — perhaps the notes for his AFL-CIO presentation? In all there are 14 contributions plus Yates’ introduction, too many to discuss separately in this review, so I will focus on three of the themes of the book.

Global Conflict and Alliances

The first has to do with the global nature of class conflict and class international class alliances. Vicente Navarro points out that far from doing away with the nation-state, neoliberal rulers require the state to frame and enforce both domestic and international policy. Their claim to reduce the role and cost of the state is pure hypocrisy. Reagan, for example, increased the federal government from about 21% of the GDP to 23% — mostly through military spending.

Navarro criticizes writers like Hardt and Negri who celebrate globalization and buy into the idea that the state is becoming obsolete and imperialism some amorphous global phenomenon. After all, without the state (U.S.) how could George Bush invade and occupy Iraq and gain entry and perhaps control (via the Iraqi state) of its oil for America’s petrol-dependent economy?

Navarro also argues that the class struggle is worldwide. That is not the old idea of rich nations versus poor as a substitute for class conflict. The basic conflict today is not so much between nations, or even North versus South, but an alliance of capitalist classes across borders that implements the global neoliberal agenda against the dominated classes.

The leaders and ruling elites of the South, for all their complaints of unfair trade, are themselves now mostly neoliberals. Venezuela’s Chavez and Bolivia’s Morales remain exceptions. The war waged by these cross-border alliances are against the working and “popular” classes everywhere. Growing inequality between nations is matched by that within virtually all countries.

This is not to say that everyone is equally poor or well off: Navarro notes that a Black youth in a Baltimore ghetto is likely to have more resources than a middle class professional in Ghana. Nevertheless, the hope of the future lies in the rising of the dominated classes and in crafting international alliances among them to contest those of the dominating classes.

Both Race and Class

The second focus is on the relation of race to class, a theme that comes up frequently in the book. Four of the essays deal with this directly. Sabiyha Prince dissects the differences within the African-American middle class and the relationship with Black working-class people. She distinguishes between Black professionals in the public sector and business executives, and also points out that radical African-American intellectuals maintain connections to poorer Blacks. She finds that generation has a lot to do with how middle-class Blacks view the poor.

Richard Vogel presents a brief, but unique analysis of the rise of the informal economy in Los Angeles. and the nation and the role of immigrant workers in it. Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin analyze the history of race and class in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, leaving little doubt that race was always central.

Perhaps the major discussion of the working class and race, however, appears in the essays by David Roediger and Martha Gimenez. Roediger takes on the retreat from race he sees in the works of academics of both the right and left. Toward the end of the essay he cites a union leader who said of the decline in Black union membership, “We see it as a class issue rather than a race issue.” Roediger rightly retorts, “It is both, and the retreat from race and class will get us closer to neither.”

Gimenez deals with the difficult relationship of social “identity” and class. She argues that oppression and poverty in this country are typically experienced in terms of one’s racial or gender identity, even when the actual condition flows from one’s class position. Such identities are formed through struggles as well as oppressions that impart a cultural or “status” identity.

To a large extent identity politics have trumped class consciousness in the United States, due to the way racism and sexism have ordered the occupational and income hierarchy of the working class. Identity cannot be wished away, but she argues for greater emphasis on class: the question to be asked she suggests is not “who are you?” but “which side are you on?”

What’s Behind Galloping Inequality?

The third theme is that of the growing inequality in income and wealth. This is done in two essays: one by William Tabb, the other by Michael Perelman. This burgeoning economic inequality is a reversal of trends in the United States, running from the 1930s into the 1970s.

The recent astronomical increase in the income and wealth of the top 1% or less of the population has, as Tabb argues, fueled the neoliberal political and intellectual takeover since the Carter years.

In an illustration of capitalist class consciousness, Perelman quotes maverick billionaire Warren Buffett as saying, “If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning.” Both essays produce prodigious and useful figures. The shared analysis is mainly a political one: that this dramatic shift in wealth is the result of neoliberal policy on taxes, deregulation and privatization.

To be sure, these policies have amplified and accelerated this redistribution, but there is something deeper in this capitalist economy that determines the distribution of income and, hence wealth, and that is exploitation in the Marxist sense. After all, this political argument has been made by Paul Krugman and the New York Times 2005 book Class Matters, based on its series, both of which present the same level of analysis, though not the same understanding of class.

I cannot help but thinking that a deeper look at this would have strengthened the case for class. The distribution of wealth begins in the process of production and the fight over the surplus it produces. This is the heart of the labor-capital relationship and of the accumulation process.

Here is some food for thought using figures from the Census Bureau’s Economic Census, albeit with flagrant disregard of the transformation problem [i.e. converting price to value — ed.] and limited to the declining manufacturing sector. Here I use the figures for Value Added in manufacturing, minus total real wages, as a proxy for surplus value, and the amount of real surplus value added [s] divided by total hours worked by production workers [v] as a proxy for the rate of exploitation [s/v =s’].

On these calculations the rate of surplus value or exploitation in 1983 was $28.00; i.e., 28/1 per hour. In 2002, the latest year available in this census, it was $54.59 or 55/1. In other words, the rate of exploitation had almost doubled in manufacturing over two decades. In 1983 total wages composed 24% of value added, but by 2002 they were down to just under18%. The mass of real surplus value had grown by almost 70%, while total real wages had fallen by over 12%.

The working class was losing, and income and wealth shifting to capital, even before taxes or other re-distributive polices were figured in, and it involved trillions of dollars in real money terms. It was from this shift that the extreme executive salaries and stock deals, rising “unearned” incomes from dividends and interest, and soaring political expenditures came in the first place.

And this covers only one sector of the economy. It seems to me a book on class would have benefited from this level of analysis, since this is where the formation of the two major conflicting classes and the distribution of wealth begins.My final gripe with More Unequal is the absence of any real analysis of organized labor. It can be argued that since unions now embrace only about 12% of the workforce they are not all that important, but I doubt that either the editor or most of the contributors would argue that position.

Several of the authors do briefly mention unions in discussions of race and gender, most notably Luce and Brenner. Another article on the decline of unions might have seemed anti-climactic and repetitive of much of the recent literature on unions. But what about one on the state of organizing in relation to race, gender, and immigration, or that most invisible aspect of unionism — its functioning in the workplace, where the fight over the effort bargain, as well as the wage bargain, is being lost?

After all, if class is to bcome more than an analytical tool, and if our side is to exercise its most basic form of power, that over production, unions will have to play a role.

Gripes aside, this is a very useful book. It’s accessible and informative and raises difficult questions we all need to face. I used both of Yates’ previous books in labor education courses I taught in New York and would have been more than glad to use this one.

ATC 133, March-April 2008