May Day

by John Quiggin on May 1, 2011

In Australia it’s the evening of May Day, though as it falls on a Sunday we will (in Queensland at least[1]) celebrate it with that great Australian institution, a long weekend. Last year, I went on the march, this year I ran a triathlon instead[2]. My somewhat confused attitude is, I think, pretty characteristic of the position labour movement more generally.
Updated below

I’m a worker and a union member, but on a higher income than many employers, and (thanks to research grants) effectively an employer myself. Where Marx and others in the 19th century foresaw a sharpening of the divide between capitalists and proletarians, the actual outcome has been that the lines have been increasingly blurred. A term like ‘working class’ is more of a cultural and occupational label than a statement about economic position – I read somewhere that ‘working class’ households in the US have about the same average income as households in general.

At the same time, there clearly exists a boss class which has become increasingly self-assured (in fact, bossy) over recent decades and is grabbing a steadily growing share of the economic pie. The top 1 per cent of income earners receive something like 25 per cent of total income and Paul Krugman has pointed out that 10 per cent of all capital gains in the US accrued to just 400 individuals. The recent attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere reflect the political power of this class, and the resistance to those attacks reflects the possibility of a more general movement to protect the interests of workers against the claims of the bosses.

Given the decades of retreats and defeats we have experienced, it seems somewhat quixotic to call for a revival of traditional trade unionism. On the other hand, there is no apparent alternative, and unions have managed to carry on the struggle with at least some success (for example, the defeat of WorkChoices in Australia).

The debate over austerity provides one possible way of linking these issues. The demand for austerity has been pressed primarily by the same financial corporations that caused the crisis in the first place. They, and not public sector workers, or workers in general, are the ones who should pay. But only with strong unions and a political movement openly supportive of workers against the top 1 per cent can this be achieved. The political case is there, and would, I think attract plenty of support, but the political movement is not.

I’d welcome suggestions of a way forward, pointers to positive developments around the world and so on.

Update. Commenters here and elsewhere have reminded me that much of the labour that used to be done by the working class in developed countries is now done in factories in China[3] and other developing countries, along with the same oppression and class conflict and at least some of the resistance we celebrate on May Day. In this context, can I give a plug to Labourstart, which links to labour struggles all around the world, and links today to a great collection of May Day songs.

fn1. Most Australian states celebrate Labour Day on a different day, usually commemorating the achievement of the eight-hour working day in the 19th century. In the subsequent hundred years of so, we managed to whittle that down to 7.6 hours, and get Saturdays off, but for many, the reduction in the standard working week has been snatched back since about 1990.

fn2. 1:32 for a sprint (750/20/5) – not competitive, but a personal best

fn3 The fact that the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” in this instance is by far the world’s largest and most politically successful communist parties is one of those ironies that make history a depressing study.

{ 34 comments }

1

Bill Gardner 05.01.11 at 12:05 pm

Does hiring research assistants really make you an employer? Perhaps Australian universities are different, but even though I am the named principal investigator, my grants transfer money from the federal government to my hospital. I’m more of a line manager in a corporation than an employer.
Moreover, it increasingly feels as if I’m a manager in a private corporation, rather than a non-profit or public institution. The boards of our University and Hospital — my employers — are led by the small group of families who own the leading corporations and (largely retail) fortunes in Central Ohio. Anyone with a good job in this region works for these families, through one reporting line or another.

2

Oliver 05.01.11 at 12:32 pm

But what does your disposable income depend more on? Your wages or laws in the form of taxes, contributions and goods whose prices are mainly determined by regulation?

3

James Kroeger 05.01.11 at 1:13 pm

“The demand for austerity has been pressed primarily by the same financial corporations that caused the crisis in the first place. They, and not public sector workers, or workers in general, are the ones who should pay. But only with strong unions and a political movement openly supportive of workers against the top 1 per cent can this be achieved.”

I agree, John. But I have to say that I think the ‘political movement openly supportive of workers‘ has to occur before ‘strong unions‘ will have any chance to become effective vs. the top 1 percent.

In order for this ‘political movement’ to gain any traction, I think it is absolutely necessary that all ‘left-leaning’ economists get on the same page re: an economic agenda that would first and foremost optimize the economic welfare of the Working Class. Instead of simply navel-gazing and acknowledging that certain kinds of policy initiatives would ‘improve’ the circumstances of workers, why not articulate a vision of what an ideal economy [for workers] would look like? A vision that they could get excited about when contemplating it?

It’s really not all that difficult to do. In an ideal Working Class world, there would always be a chronic labor shortage—more jobs available than there are workers, which would create the conditions necessary for labor unions to actually make gains at the negotiating table. It is the easiest thing in the world to accomplish through government intervention. If the government increases its spending on real economic investments enough, a general labor shortage across the entire economy would develop.

Two challenges must be met in order to achieve such an economy: (1) government revenues must be increased substantially, and (2) fear of inflation must be tamed.

With respect to (1), it can be shown that, if government spending on infrastructure and human capital is (A) increased to sufficiently high levels, and (B) financed by steeply-progressive income taxation, it would not only provide the Working Class an economy that optimizes its welfare, but it would also provide the Upper Class with the ideal economy—in real terms—that they could ever hope for.

Taming the fear that everyone seems to have re: inflation will be a much greater challenge. Most left-leaning economists are not quite ready to stand behind the statement “inflation is always and everywhere harmless when it comes to the purchasing power of consumers.” Yet, it is nevertheless true.

Large gains in nominal income during periods of ‘robust’ inflation do not increase the purchasing power of inflated incomes anywhere near the degree that people might wish, but it is also true that [almost] no one loses out—in terms of purchasing power—from inflation. If the economy is operating at its ultimate capacity due to the increases in spending on economic investments, then it is not possible for people in general to experience a drop in purchasing power, all else equal. The same amount of real goods and services is produced and sold, and households have enough dollars to purchase it all.

In addition, real gains in ‘economic growth’ = welfare are enjoyed as a consequence of the economic investments that are being made. Real investment levels are maintained at cyclical highs. In real terms, people are never better off than they are when inflation is endured as a necessary consequence of increasing aggregate spending to the levels that are needed to eliminate all unemployment.

Another irrational fear that needs to be tamed is that of hyper-inflation. If a central bank uses effective credit controls to soak up excess liquidity (see ‘sterilization bonds’), robust levels of inflation (say, between 5%-15%, with occasional spikes) could be maintained indefinitely, without even the slightest possibility of hyperinflation ever unfolding.

In an economy that is enjoying ‘robust inflation’, it is extremely easy to solve the problem of ‘fixed incomes': simply provide a government subsidy (from the printing press) that enables those on fixed incomes to keep up with the income-inflation that everyone else is experiencing. At zero real cost, everyone benefits from the economy operating at full capacity and no one gets left behind.

Yes, the financial services industry would lose the gravy train that has placed them at the zenith of the income distribution ladder, but since they don’t really produce anything of value, it will be no loss to the economy as a whole.

One would think that left-leaning economists would gravitate toward some such vision, but they don’t. Why do you suppose that is, Dr. Quiggin?

4

Ed 05.01.11 at 1:59 pm

“In an ideal Working Class world, there would always be a chronic labor shortage—-more jobs available than there are workers, which would create the conditions necessary for labor unions to actually make gains at the negotiating table.”

This is the problem with James Kroeger’s analysis above. Supposing, due to automatation, overpopulation, and stronger environmental contraints, which in turn leads do decreased or stagnant economic growth, achieving a “chronic labor” shortage is impossible, no matter how loose the monetary policy. Then your inflationary policies will either not overcome these factors and not induce inflation at all, or anything else for that matter, or you will get price rises in everything EXCEPT wages, in which case the effect won’t exactly be beneficial to the (former) working class.

5

engels 05.01.11 at 2:14 pm

the actual outcome has been that the lines have been increasingly blurred. A term like ‘working class’ is more of a cultural and occupational label

The investigation gives a detailed picture of life for the 500,000 workers at the Shenzhen and Chengdu factories owned by Foxconn, which produces millions of Apple products each year. The report accuses Foxconn of treating workers “inhumanely, like machines”. Among the allegations made by workers interviewed by the NGOs – the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom) – are claims that:

■ Excessive overtime is routine, despite a legal limit of 36 hours a month. One payslip, seen by the Observer, indicated that the worker had performed 98 hours of overtime in a month.

■ Workers attempting to meet the huge demand for the first iPad were sometimes pressured to take only one day off in 13.

■ In some factories badly performing workers are required to be publicly humiliated in front of colleagues.

■ Crowded workers’ dormitories can sleep up to 24 and are subject to strict rules. One worker told the NGO investigators that he was forced to sign a “confession letter” after illicitly using a hairdryer. In the letter he wrote: “It is my fault. I will never blow my hair inside my room. I have done something wrong. I will never do it again.”

■ In the wake of a spate of suicides at Foxconn factories last summer, workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to “treasure their lives”.

6

William Timberman 05.01.11 at 2:35 pm

When I first read Marx, having no prior knowledge of Adam Smith’s work, or that of Ricardo, Bagehot, or Say, and little acquaintance with the technical arguments for and against which addressed the economic analysis in Das Kapital, my impression was that he wrote about economics largely because he wanted to be taken seriously as a moral and political thinker, and could think of no other way to make that possible without taking on the triumph of capitalism directly. Although I know a lot more now than I did then, my perception of what drove Marx remains pretty much the same. It’s hard to read his sulphurous condemnation of the English Factory Acts, for example, simply as the work of a man fascinated by a hitherto undiscovered clockwork driving our civilization. He was first and foremost a Jeremiah, bound to use the best tools available to convince others of the dire consequences of what he already understood to be their folly.

We’ve been told that we do much better now, and our economists in particular have insisted that we were always likely to do better, once the fools in their thousands, and their victims in their millions had been buried, and everyone had seen the light. Marx, to put it simply, was wrong. No doubt he was, in this or that detail of his adopted science, but as we’re now discovering to our chagrin, he wasn’t quite so wrong about the politics and the morals as he was about the economics.

If you work for wages paid by another, no matter how high they are, in the end you’re as vulnerable as the spinners and weavers of Marx’s time. Given that working for wages is the fate of most of us in these Modern Times, that vulnerability somehow has to be compensated for by a civil society arranged so that we have some confidence that we’ll be secure against what Brecht once called die ungerechte Verteilung der irdischen Güter, and its corollary, die gerechte Verteilung der überirdischen Güter.

Do we still have that confidence after 2007? I, for one, do not, nor do I think that a lack of such confidence can any longer be called the mark of either barbarism or intellectual caprice.

7

James Kroeger 05.01.11 at 3:23 pm

Ed, 4:

“Supposing, due to automatation, overpopulation, and stronger environmental contraints, which in turn leads do decreased or stagnant economic growth, achieving a “chronic labor” shortage is impossible, no matter how loose the monetary policy.”

Well, Ed, it appears that someone forgot to explain to you that it is always possible to create a jobs environment where there are more jobs available than there are people to fill them. Just about every road, bridge, and sewerage system in the United States could be ‘modernized’, older systems replaced replaced with state-of-the-art versions that would generally speaking be superior to the older versions. Environmental cleanup, itself, could occupy many millions of workers. Space programs could benefit from huge, new investments.

The quality of human capital could be dramatically improved by hiring the ‘army of teachers’ that Barack Obama once said he wanted to create. Building more schools and hiring more teachers would reduce classroom sizes, which is probably the single best investment that society could make in improving educational outcomes (because marginal students require more of their teachers’ time to achieve better grades.) Teacher/student ratios of say 1-to-8 would undoubted improve test scores significantly across all income groups.

The one problem with the NHS in Britain is underfunding. Wait times for elective surgery would be reduced with the building of more hospitals, operating rooms, clinics, and the hiring of more physicians. If England spent somewhere close to the percentage of its GDP on health care that America spends, it would astonish the world with the quality of health care it is able to provide.

Even if it were theoretically possible to achieve all these improvements in the welfare of the citizenry, and it still proved difficult to soak up the excess unemployment, it would still be possible to reduce the amount of labor that each citizen is asked to ‘work’ each week, thereby increasing the number of jobs available while also increasing the amount of leisure that all are able to enjoy at the same time.

“Then your inflationary policies will either not overcome these factors and not induce inflation at all, or anything else for that matter, or you will get price rises in everything EXCEPT wages, in which case the effect won’t exactly be beneficial to the (former) working class.”

You’re going to have to explain this one to me, how the ‘inflationary policies” I propose (creating jobs) would not induce inflation in wages, in spite of the fact that both the private sector and government would be competing for scarce workers. You’re imagining a perverse, unintended consequence that simply isn’t possible.

8

Gaspard 05.01.11 at 3:26 pm

Is it possible that strongly pro-labour politics has to spend at least as long in the political wilderness as strongly pro-capital politics did? This would be from either the 1930s or 1945 to the early 80s. Neoliberalism has only been dominant for 25-30 years in the Anglosaxon world, less so elsewhere. It would appear that it will take another generation to rediscover, reinvent, and reimplement social democracy.

9

James Kroeger 05.01.11 at 3:31 pm

William Timberman, 6:

“…my impression was that he [Marx] wrote about economics largely because he wanted to be taken seriously as a moral and political thinker…”

I have long argued that Marx saw history as a morality play, of sorts, where the good guys are being exploited by the bad guys. His ultimate hope was that the good guys would eventually rise up and dispossess the bad guys of their power, leaving the good guys in charge.

His simplistic assumption was that simply removing the bad guys from power and replacing them with the good guys would quite naturally lead to everyone “living happily ever after.” The problem he did not account for was that simply being a victim of the bad guys doesn’t make your judgment re: the organization of economic activity superior to all alternatives.

10

William Timberman 05.01.11 at 3:46 pm

JK @ 9

Quite so. The poor are no more moral than the rich, and human nature being what it is, politics is always a balancing act, as the much-misquoted founders of the American republic well understood, however mistaken they may have been about other things. That’s why we need informants other than Marx to guide us, not least when it comes to the lineaments of gratified desire. What we owe one to another isn’t in the end strictly a matter of economics or of politics, nor is there such a thing as a universal key to human history.

Still, if I had to choose between Marx and Arthur Laffer or Alan Greenspan, even as a purely economic sensei, there’s little doubt which would be first on my list.

11

William Timberman 05.01.11 at 4:47 pm

To put it another way, is Keynes — or Brad DeLong, for that matter — the solution to the dilemma posed by Marx? To the economic problem, perhaps. To the political problem, I think not. That remains for us to puzzle out, now that we know for certain that it hasn’t been, all those rosy reassurances from the pet economists of the ruling class to the contrary notwithstanding.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.01.11 at 4:53 pm

I have long argued that Marx saw history as a morality play, of sorts, where the good guys are being exploited by the bad guys. His ultimate hope was that the good guys would eventually rise up and dispossess the bad guys of their power, leaving the good guys in charge.

Interesting. I see it as the opposite, actually. There are no good guys or bad guys, no morality play; only classes and their interests. It’s a systematic approach, which is the opposite of a morality play.

13

William Timberman 05.01.11 at 5:09 pm

HV @ 12

A good point. I would argue, however, that Marx was not alone among the wounded moralists of his period to take a hopeful refuge in science. As I read Marx, his confidence in that science was more an attempt to convince himself of a way forward free of superstition than it was a solid conviction. Unfortunately, his followers were less subtle in either their thinking or their passions.

I’d agree that this is only an opinion, and that Marx is susceptible to an equally valid alternate reading, depending on what the reader brings to the work from his own experience, but when all is said and done, it works for me.

14

mcd 05.01.11 at 6:11 pm

Marx didn’t want to replace bad guys with good guys;he wanted to eliminate the structural positions (owners and investors) that made exploitation possible. He assumed that workers would treat themselves better than capitalists would, but as far as living happily ever after, his position was that, for better or for worse, economic decisions should be made by those most affected by them, and they’d eventually do right by themselves.

He also assumed that if you merely put good guys in bad positions, they’d decide the same way as the bad guys did.

15

Pete 05.01.11 at 6:13 pm

An important difference between today and Marx’s time is financialisation. Owner-manager bosses have been replaced with a system where ownership is largely in the hands of pension funds and insurers – themselves funded by the general public in a very indirect way. While control is in the hands of a class of professional managers, in both the public and private sectors. It’s quite possible for those managers to become parasitic on both the workers and the owners of the business, and they can be extremely difficult for either to remove. This leads to Dilbertian situations.

16

Substance McGravitas 05.01.11 at 6:16 pm

I read somewhere that ‘working class’ households in the US have about the same average income as households in general.

Hmm.

17

Trifacto 05.01.11 at 6:39 pm

@9 and 10

I would like to offer up Bertrand Russell.

18

dictateursanguinaire 05.01.11 at 6:51 pm

“I read somewhere that ‘working class’ households in the US have about the same average income as households in general.”

This makes sense. Speaking of Marxism (which I’m not a big fan of but it has engendered some useful/precise terms), it’s pretty much summed up by the labor aristocracy concept. The bad “working class” jobs have gone to other countries and the manual labor jobs that have remained here are usually things that cannot be outsourced for one reason or another, giving unions and workers higher bargaining power. Of course, there are still plenty of indigent workers here but in the US, the term “working class” term tends to exclude those folks – it has come to connote “unionized, white, manufacturing” types, conveniently cleaving away, e.g., Mexican migrant roofers or urban black janitors or Appalachian white folks working at Wal-Mart. In effect, it’s because of the way we define working class. If you define working class purely by “type of job [as opposed to pay] and culture”, then yes, definitely that class has improved its lot. White dudes working at Boeing factories make bank relative to white dudes working at Ford 100 years ago. But that relies on a definition that was once economically accurate but is really now more just a cultural thing.

Also, that group was much more unified (non-Protestant white males, along with a chunk of non-Protestant black males) and so it was easier to spot and say “hey, they improved their lot”, whereas today’s lowest sector is pretty disparate (Catholic Latinos of both sexes, the white and black males who never unionized, single white/black females.) Again, I’m not a Marxist, and I’m not saying that capitalism doesn’t generally get better over time but that improvement is very uneven.

19

Bloix 05.01.11 at 6:58 pm

“I read somewhere that ‘working class’ households in the US have about the same average income as households in general.”

The term “working class” is not in general use in America. People who would be identified as “working class” in England (and perhaps in Australia – I wouldn’t know) are “middle class” in the US. In the US, a person with unionized job in a factory is considered “middle class” and the current struggle over public sector unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere is cast, by union supporters, as a fight to maintain “middle class jobs for workers.”

This of course creates all sorts of opportunities for unintentional confusion and intentional mischief, whereby households which earn $60,000/year are considered to be of the same class (“middle”) as households which earn $250,000/year.

Indeed, other than a handful of poor people everyone in America is middle class, up to and including Donald Trump, and anyone who says otherwise is advocating class warfare.

20

dictateursanguinaire 05.01.11 at 7:00 pm

^looks like Bloix and I had a Bell/Gray moment

21

stostosto 05.01.11 at 7:18 pm

The sharply increasing inequality since around 1980, isn’t that mostly an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon? UK, US, Aus, NZ have seen a divergence of incomes while continental EU countries haven’t? (Excluding former east bloc since they’re a different matter). And if that is so, why is that? I’d venture we have had many parallel political developments in e. g. Scandinavia, but by and large the income distribution has remained stable. If (*if*) that is so, I’d like to know what it is that is behind it, lest we throw it carelessly to the wind.

[Also, I am quite impressed by Mr. Quiggin’s triathlon result]

22

William Timberman 05.01.11 at 7:22 pm

@ 18, 19

Calling it an Orwell moment would be closer to the truth. The Destruction of the Middle Class, so much moaned about in today’s U.S., would come as no surprise either to Orwell or to Marx. Redefining terms is, after all, so much more (administratively) convenient than addressing the thing itself.

23

Myles 05.01.11 at 7:58 pm

Interesting. I see it as the opposite, actually. There are no good guys or bad guys, no morality play; only classes and their interests. It’s a systematic approach, which is the opposite of a morality play.

Not really. Marx’s view of history was teleological; which by definition makes him a moralist historian and philosopher. People who aren’t moralistic also aren’t teleological.

Owner-manager bosses have been replaced with a system where ownership is largely in the hands of pension funds and insurers – themselves funded by the general public in a very indirect way.

I think the separation has been for the better. People who can be very good operational managers of businesses are often very bad at making the sort of broader economic decisions that involve allocative efficiency; in the postwar the fusion at the top level led to unbelievable empire-building and duplicative capacity, in the form of ridiculous conglomerates. I remember reading about Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts, the LBO firm, when they were just starting out in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and it was utterly unbelievable: founder-managers of large businesses (I forgot the name, but this one was based out of Long Beach, Calif., and was acquired by KKR in the 70’s) would over-extend themselves into something like 30 different sectors with something like 60-plus subsidiaries.

In the case of Safeway, another KKR acquisition, the fusion of capital and management in the form of family ownership and management turned out to be a completely disaster, which was actually the what caused Safeway to be taken over by KKR in the mid-80’s in the first place, so they could kick out the founder’s grandson (Magowan, IIRC), who was badly mismanaging the company. When they examined the accounts, it was found that something like a majority of the stores had been operating in the red for quite some time, subsidized by the profitable stores. Had ownership and management been separately, the incompetent family management would have been kicked out long ago, before Safeway got to the stage where a takeover was inevitable.

24

Myles 05.01.11 at 8:09 pm

Correction, sorry: Magowan collaborated with KKR, while many others in the family seemed opposed. KKR together Magowan beat back the other party in the Magowan-Merrill family.

It’s amazing how easily incompetent family management can be, the bleatings of John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs notwithstanding.

25

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.01.11 at 8:18 pm

Marx’s view of history was teleological; which by definition makes him a moralist historian and philosopher.

Yeah, I understand what you and others are saying here, but I think it’s possible (easy, in fact) to separate the concept of historical materialism from their (Marx/Engels) political activism, their revolutionary activities. Historical materialism doesn’t need to be moralistic or teleological; it’s just an approach, an angle.

26

spectre 05.01.11 at 8:26 pm

I don’t see May Day as a day for exclusively working class interests. I see it more broadly as a rally for justice and equality. One important part of that struggle involves improving working conditions (pay, work environment, job security). But it goes beyond that: moving towards a basic income, environmental protection and animal rights and realizing universal health care. One hot topic that puts 99% of the worlds population in the same exploited class: the corporate elite use of tax havens to the detriment for the rest.

27

Freddie 05.01.11 at 10:51 pm

Hooray! You’ve further eroded the argument for solidarity.

28

garymar 05.01.11 at 11:28 pm

Safeway: but if the owners are are the managers, don’t they have a right to mismanage the firm as they see fit?

29

Myles 05.02.11 at 12:29 am

Safeway: but if the owners are are the managers, don’t they have a right to mismanage the firm as they see fit?

In this case, no, for several reasons. a) the Merrill-Magowan family owned the controlling voting interest, but not necessarily every share (multiple voting shares possibly involved). So minority shareholders were getting shortchanged. Incidentally, this is a near-perfect instance of (now obsolete) “honest services” fraud. b) in a business as large and systematic as Safeway, there’s a non-negligible risk of regulatory capture, i.e. using the coercive power of the state to entrench itself, thus preventing more competition arising that would compete against the mismanaged business. This is why, by the way, I think multiple-voting and non-voting shares should be outlawed: it’s basically a recipe for insider self-dealing. This is also one of the reasons the Anglo-Saxon system of capitalism is superior: we look very much askance on various European and Asian chicanery involving multiple voting share classes, and are generally not sympathetic to sophistic arguments that the the founding family has some sort of intrinsic claim to control.

Yeah, I understand what you and others are saying here, but I think it’s possible (easy, in fact) to separate the concept of historical materialism from their (Marx/Engels) political activism, their revolutionary activities. Historical materialism doesn’t need to be moralistic or teleological; it’s just an approach, an angle.

I don’t think this is possible. The system of historical materialism is in itself teleological; I don’t see any way around it. Even absent Marxism, it makes teleological claims that I find unconvincing. I think the point is to look outside European history; I doubt Marx could have written what he did and remained plausible if he took as much account of the histories of other continents as he did the particular circumstances of Europe’s commercial, agricultural, and industrial revolutions.

30

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb 05.02.11 at 1:27 am

Remembering May Day in a proper American fashion by considering the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire through theater, http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com/2011/05/may-day%E2%80%99s-ocular-proof-a-bundle-of-cloth/

31

liberal 05.02.11 at 12:45 pm

But only with strong unions and a political movement openly supportive of workers against the top 1 per cent can this be achieved.

Maybe that’s a necessary condition, but it’s hardly sufficient.

At least in the US, the most important ingredient would be a reorientation away from this Marxist nonsense believed by both the left and the right (and the middle, for that matter) that it’s the workers against the capitalists, and towards the Georgist truth that the problem is rent collection. That would help do away with the hoary myths that most of the “rich” have done anything to earn their riches and that government redistributes wealth downwards. (When it redistributes it upwards by granting the privilege of rent collection, primarily from land, but also from “land” in the general sense (minerals, EM spectrum), and also patents and copyrights.)

32

john b 05.02.11 at 1:20 pm

Weirdly, I agree with Myles. At least, on the evils of non-voting shares and minority control of public companies, and the importance of stronger shareholder control over boards. Although the Anglophone world is hardly immune from that particular vice, and the US is the worst example.

33

Anders 05.02.11 at 8:39 pm

Myles: “I think the separation has been for the better. People who can be very good operational managers of businesses are often very bad at making the sort of broader economic decisions that involve allocative efficiency”

I’d be interested to explore in what sense such a separation has occurred, and to what extent it has been for the better. For one thing, these days in private equity, and in professionalised corporations generally, your “operational managers” are liberally granted all sorts of ownership rights, on the rationale that doing so aligns interests.

34

william 05.03.11 at 1:13 am

‘I don’t think this is possible. The system of historical materialism is in itself teleological; I don’t see any way around it. Even absent Marxism, it makes teleological claims that I find unconvincing. I think the point is to look outside European history’

Well, for one thing, the inevitability of capitalism (issuing from human nature, etc.) is a commonplace of liberal thought. Some, mistakenly conflating market exchange with capitalism, even go so far as to read it into antiquity; others see history as structured by a conflict between the capitalist impulse and the parasitic state (instead of between classes.) Inevitability is not a view unique to Marxism. On the other hand, there are Marxists (Ellen Meiksins Wood, for instance) who see capitalism as a historical aberration — as something that arose contingently, but which, because of the logic of exponential growth immanent to it, swept the glove after nucleation in Europe.

Class struggle throughout history, yes; proletarian self-emancipation as the latent design of History, like consciousness of freedom for Hegel, no. (I’m sure there are Marxist-Hegelians who argue otherwise…)

Horkheimer writes: “If Marx did not prove socialism, he did show that capitalism harbors developmental tendencies which make it possible. The socialist order of society is not prevented by world history; it is historically possible. But it will not be realized by a logic that is immanent in history but by men trained in theory and determined to make things better. Otherwise, it will not be realized at all.”

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