Clarity of thought is rare in the United States. This is not surprising given the constant barrage of propaganda to which we are subjected during every waking hour. Nowhere are systematic falsehoods presented as truth more than with respect to the nature of our economic system. I have discussed this before, but here I want to focus attention on working people’s understanding of our political economy..
The edifice that is capitalism is built upon a foundation of exploitation. Profits derive from the ability of employers to compel workers to labor longer than necessary to meet their basic needs. Employers are able to do this because they monopolize the access to the jobs workers need to survive. Without exploitation, neither profits nor the growth they make possible could exist; indeed capitalism itself could not exist.
In modern capitalism, there is precious little that any worker can do to guarantee his or her employment. It would be a contradiction in terms for everyone to be an entrepreneur. Furthermore, there is not much individual workers can do to make their pay and benefits higher once on the job. Overwhelmingly, we are replaceable cogs in some production machine, and our employers will make us aware of that should we become too demanding. We can do nothing to stand out in a way that would make the boss pay us more money. And if we are young enough to make pre-labor market choices, we will soon enough discover that what determines whether or not we “succeed” is circumstance and not our own qualities. The wealth, education, and social connections of our parents, the state of the economy when we begin seeking employment, any number of public policies, and just plain luck—these are what matter most. There is no such thing as the “self made” man or woman.
Yet though this is all true, the web of propaganda that envelops us would have us believe (and succeeds all too often to make us believe) that the opposite is true. There is no exploitation. We are free to choose our employment and indeed the life we want to live. Profits are the just rewards for the skills of the owners of our enterprises. Wages are the rewards for our labors. Whether they are high or low depends on what we do. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are geniuses because they are so rich; they made the correct choices. The workers who deliver groceries on bicycles in New York City are ignoramuses because they are so poor; they made the wrong choices. The unemployment are beyond the pale because they have no money; they made very poor choices indeed. We cannot be exploited because, in the words of Milton Friedman, we are “free to choose.” If we are abused by our employers, that is “on us,” as they say. If we apply ourselves, work hard, persevere, be enthusiastic, seize opportunities when they present themselves, we can be anything we want to be.
Today in the United States, all too may working people believe the propaganda and do not believe the truth. I think that the main reason for this is that there are not nearly enough working class organizations, such as labor unions and worker-centered political and social organizations to show workers otherwise. The daily experience of work provides plenty of evidence that we are exploited and that individual effort and all of the virtues that Oprah Winfrey and her ilk advocate every day don’t count for much. However, this experience will only mean something if it can somehow be contextualized, that is, fitted into a coherent world view, or what amounts to the same thing, an ideology. For this to happen, workers have to engage in collective efforts to challenge their exploitation, and this presupposes that there are already in existence ways of thinking that are the result of intellectuals(who might also be workers) thinking through the meaning of such collective actions. For example, the work experiences and social interactions of skilled craft workers taught some of them that they could get better pay if they stuck together and refused to work for any employer that would not meet their demands. Over time, this developed into a powerful principle. Other actions, in workplaces and in the political arena, gave rise to new principles and a deeper understanding of how the capitalist system worked, for example, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Then an intellectual like Karl Marx took everything that had gone before in terms of struggle and understanding and built a thorough and scientific model of the entire economic system, from the perspective of the working class. He got right to the heart of the matter and exposed the truth of the edifice and the foundation of capitalism. From this came the greatest of all worker-centered principles: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” After Marx, it became the duty of every critical thinker and every working class organization to make this principle the basis of their work. A union must educate its members about this principle. Teachers must educate their students. Nothing is more important.
The fact that most workers in the United States today are not so educated results in what we might call “disconnects.” These are divergences between the thoughts and actions of workers and their true interests. We can be sure that those with power (the powerful more or less coincide with those who control the “commanding heights” of the economy—not just the owners of large businesses but also the attorneys, lobbyists, politicians, top military officers, and the like who serve their interests) will do whatever they can to ensure that workers believe the propaganda and not the truth about the system. If they are not challenged by the workers’ unions, political and social organizations, and intellectual supporters, then workers will not have an alternative way to look at the world. They will therefore either embrace the views of their class enemies or be prime targets for all manner of crackpots and charlatans, from religious cranks and idealists to nativists and conspiracists.
Here are some examples of “disconnects”:
* The public school teachers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania built a powerful union and broke once and for all the arbitrary power of the school board to determine how the teachers worked and pay they received. To win their union they struck, defying court injunctions even after their union offices were padlocked and their treasury impounded. Yet not one of these militant unionists stood up for my sons’ refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, the teachers treated my sons as if they had committed a crime.
* There is no question that the government responded to the rise of a militant and working class black movement in the 1960s and 1970s by the mass imprisonment of black men and women. This was compounded by the decline of U.S. manufacturing, which disproportionately harmed black workers, and because of the resulting unemployment and its effects, led to further black imprisonment. Those imprisoned are overwhelmingly workers. Yet white workers and unions have given this little thought and, if anything, have accepted the mainstream analysis that there is something wrong with the character of black persons and with the family structure of the black community. The U.S. labor movement has never, to my knowledge, publically and forcefully condemned the racist and anti-working class nature of the prison system.
* Today, wars are almost always connected to U.S. imperial interests. Yet, working people continue to send their children off to war and seldom make this connection.
* Workers are too often prone to blame unions for whatever ails the economy. How can this be?
* Unions themselves too often mimic in their internal structure that of their presumed class enemy and, in the process, alienate their own members.
I could go on, but you get the point. These disconnects and many more like them are the result of the failure of a mass working class movement to take hold in the United States and the failure of whatever working class organizations do exist to develop a worker-centered way of looking at the world and educating workers about it. Of course, none of us is completely consistent in our words and deeds. However, until we do something to connect the minds of workers to the reality that generates the conditions that allow them to be exploited, we will not be able even to begin the long struggle for human liberation.