[Marxism] Imperialism and the US working class (Was YADL)

Marv Gandall marvgandall at videotron.ca
Fri Apr 3 17:56:08 MDT 2009

Joaquin writes.
> I've written about this here before, and I hesitate to do so again,
> especially because this may now be an exclusively historical dispute, but
> I
> do not believe the period from roughly 1970 to today or at least recently
> has been marked by a declining standard of living for working people in
> the
> United States.


> ...I don't believe the median real standard of living has
> deteriorated, or at least had deteriorated until the year 2000 or so.
> Certainly, by every objective, material statistic I've been able to find,
> households at the beginning of this century were better off than those 30
> years previously. This is documented in all sorts of ways, from the
> number,
> size and quality of electronic entertainment devices to the square footage
> of houses to the number and age of cars per 1000 households.


> I think this is a central reason why especially the left's economic
> discourse finds little echo among working people. It fundamentally does
> not
> correspond to their own lived experience. It certainly does not correspond
> to my lived experience or those of people I know.
> This may all be changing now, I'm not speaking particularly about the
> current conjuncture but rather the broad sweep from 1970-2000 or 2005.
The subject is a controversial one because, as Joaquin says, the statistics
tend to be unreliable and/or subject to manipulation. It's also true, as he
notes, that median real incomes haven't in general declined but improved
over the past three decades. I should have been more precise and said that
they haven't matched the growth in real incomes from 1945-75 or kept pace
with the economic expansion since that time. This is confirmed by the
working class share of national income having reverted back to what it was
before the Great Depression, prior to the growth of trade unionism and the
advent of the welfare state. More to the point, I should have added that
income growth has not been uniform across the working class. Real incomes
have declined or stagnated for the majority of blue-collar and other workers
who lack a post-secondary education. The average has been boosted by the
gains secured (at least until very recently) by the fastest-growing stratum
of the workforce - professional and technical workers employed in the
health, education, government, high tech, finance, communications,
entertainment, and other service sectors.

These workers are for the most part not unionized, and hence there is no
compulsion for imperialism to bribe them any more than Al Capone had to
bribe the small proprietors of local speakeasies to extract his profits.
Their wages have been dictated rather than bargained. They've done better
than less skilled workers because employers have had to compete to recruit
and retain personnel in these expanding sectors of the economy.

That sector of the workforce which has been traditionally identified as the
"aristocracy of labour" - the unionized industrial proletariat - is no
longer the aristocracy Joaquin has been contending it is. Far from it.
Rather than benefiting from wage bribery over the past three decades,
workers in the contracting sectors of the economy have seen their living
standards and job security sharply cut. This is hardly news.

The primary reason why their conditions have deteriorated has been the
progressively reduced power of their unions to improve them. This is less
owing to the cupidity and stupidity of the "labour bureaucrats" (for whom I
hold no particular brief) than the appearance of vast new cheap labour pools
in China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere over the past three decades. The
multinationals have been able to exploit these as a result of revolutionary
advances in communications and transportation coupled with the demise of the
former autarchic anticapitalist states. The beginning of the "neoliberal"
assault on working class standards which has been associated with the Reagan
and Thatcher eras could not have occured without the great technological and
geopolitical changes which have produced labour surpluses where there once
were labour shortages in auto, steel, rubber, and all of the other bastions
of the old industrial unions.

Joaquin points to the access of workers to consumer goods such as homes,
cars, cell phones, flat screen TV's, air travel, and designer knock-offs of
all kinds as evidence that living standards have continously improved. But
this does not take into account the contemporary need for two income
households, vast amounts of unpaid overtime and family stress, and mountains
of mortgage and other debt which has been required to sustain the great
bubble in consumption - chickens which have now come home to roost.

But I agree with Joaquin that "this may now be an exclusively historical
dispute..."  If so, we can put to rest the notion that there currently
exists an objective material basis for the political backwardness of the US
working class. There is no doubt that the chauvinism and militarism
characteristic of all imperialist states has infected the US politcal
culture, as has racism, but the movement of younger American whites towards
Obama and the promise of change in US foreign and domestic policy which he
represents to them, rightly or wrongly, suggests this is not a permanent
condition - with all of the political conclusions which flow from it.

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