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The Problem Of Labor And Democracy

By Jon Kofas

03 Sepetmber, 2015

Governments, mainstream politicians working within the existing system, businesses, many think tanks and a segment of academia, and the media portray workers as the enemy of progress and society trying to achieve “bourgeois consensus” under the market economy that its apologists project as the only possible option without any room for criticism outside the system.

Whether in the West or in the rest of the world, politicians representing businesses, advocates of globalization and neoliberal orthodoxy, and even workers regard the labor movement and workers as a class as “the enemy” of the status quo. While some analysts may view as normal simply because the working class has antithetical interests from the capitalist class and is engaged in an endless class struggle, it is amazing that in pluralistic societies the socioeconomic and political elites have unleashed such an open war against labor that is essential to a democratic society.

In his classic study The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson describes the horrible conditions of the working class during the First Industrial Revolution and how they could have led to a political revolution if Parliament had not addressed some of the problems. Instead of having a revolution like France, England evolved to develop a liberal bourgeois society that took into account some of the very basic needs of labor. Many intellectuals as well as activists of all types, including Jacobites, Luddites, Owenites, Chartists and all the others protested the absence of social justice until government realized reform was preferable to revolution that the rest of Europe encountered in 1848. The withering away of working class rights, lower living standards, and erosion of social justice affecting workers is extremely dangerous for a democracy in the 21st century and creates the foundations for social upheaval in the future unless gross socioeconomic inequities and lack of political representation are addressed.

Theme: At the core of the war on workers is the direct correlation between the decline of the social welfare state whose foundations were laid during the Great Depression, and the emergence of “containment militarism” established in the early Cold War, followed by the gradual rise of the corporate welfare state.

Historical Introduction: The Early Cold War

The war on the working class and especially on unionized or aspiring unionized workers has been relentless with the media, mainstream politicians, and just about anyone trying to mold public opinion to support the existing political economy and its culture. This trend started with the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War that the US government used as a pretext to force labor into a docile role in society. This policy was then internationalized (globalized) and governments throughout the world from Latin America to Europe and Asia friendly to the US followed the lead of the superpower of the West.

This is reflected in the split of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) over the Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine and the hard line of the Truman administration to opt for confrontation instead of coexistence with Moscow and the Soviet bloc. The WFTU had included labor unions from the entire world and helped promote the war effort, but the AFL led a campaign that resulted in the creation of the pro-US anti-Communist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

Reflecting the Cold War East-West division, the existence of rival international organizations necessarily weakened labor because national and local trade unions had to choose sides and become co-opted by political parties, thus losing their solidarity and their strength to fight for workers and social justice. The early Cold War was the beginning of the long decline not just of trade unions, but of labor as a political force in society as it had been during the 1930s and 1940s in the US, some European and some Latin American countries.

The WFT represented an era when labor in most countries was at the zenith of its power because it played such a significant role in the Second World War that made the international political climate possible for the creation of the unified WFTU. However, this global unity and temporary power labor enjoyed in society was bound to be short lived not only because of the Cold War but because of nationalism among trade unions as well as their respective governments; resolve to use them as instruments of their policies. This was as much in the US and the USSR as it was for European, Latin American, and Asian labor central (confederations where regional syndicates were members).

Trade unions in non-Communist countries operating under the cover of the political opposition paid a high price of persecution. Others were co-opted by governments, something that diminished the credibility of the trade union leadership in the eyes of the rank-and-file. In any case, workers’ interests were compromised either as members of unions that were persecuted or unions co-opted. US-backed right wing regime persecuted labor in Colombia, Peru, South Korea, Greece, Turkey, Iran under the Shah, Philippines, South Africa, to mention only a few of the countries where labor had few rights and where the anti-Communist campaign was used to persecute workers and deny them social justice. Added to this reality of Cold War labor politics, the great shift in manufacturing from the developed to the less developed nations contributed to the gradual demise of the trade unions and to the erosion of working class living standards because their counterparts in the Southern Hemisphere were earning a great deal less and enjoyed far fewer benefits. (For more on this issue see “US Foreign Policy and the World Federation of Trade Unions”, Jon Kofas, Diplomatic History, Vol. 26 No. 1 2002)

The Reagan-Thatcher Decade

After the early Cold War that placed political perimeters on organized labor, the next big blow to the working class as a whole came during the Reagan-Thatcher decade. From Truman to Reagan, organized labor in the US and in pro-West countries had become an integral part of the political establishment, some trade union bosses immersed in corruption, others merely following dictates of management because they knew that the courts would side with employers and not support their struggle. The message to unionized and un-unionized workers was that conformity was the only option, otherwise it was eclipse. Against such a powerful institutional anti-labor tide that included the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, and numerous think tanks that argued against giving any power to labor, most workers became disillusioned and simply tried to survive rather than fight for working class rights and social justice through labor solidarity.

Receiving new life in the 1980s in the US, the anti-labor trend gradually spread to the rest of the world in the age of globalization and neoliberal policies. Many observers of labor issues may be surprised that the war on labor has prevailed in Europe that traditionally respected labor rights under varieties of regimes, from conservative to Socialist, all embracing neoliberal policies that at their core are vehemently anti-labor. Although university studies as well as those conducted by the International Labor Office (ILO), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and other mainstream international organizations.

Even in the former Communist bloc where the proletariat was once the national symbol the anti-labor movement gained political momentum. The worker and the peasant as symbols of society have been replaced with the millionaire or billionaire businessman invariably linked to public and private sector corruption that go hand in hand. Not that labor conditions are much different in the one-party state of China that claims to Communism, but practices capitalism and some of the most exploitative conditions in the world at the expense of workers.

Mainstream politics and media portray workers as the enemy of progress and society trying to achieve “bourgeois consensus” under the market economy that its apologists project as the only possible option without any room for criticism outside the system. Whether in the West or in the rest of the world, politicians representing businesses, advocates of globalization and neoliberal orthodoxy, and even workers see not just trade unions, not just the labor movement, but workers as a class as “the enemy” of the status quo. One must wonder if slaves in ancient Rome detested other slaves because they detested slavery as an institution and saw it as a blemish on society.

It is as though the working class is not producing capital and keeping society going for the parasitic elites living off the profits that labor produces. According to the analysis of mainstream media, politicians and varieties of well-paid analysts, workers are the obstacle and arch enemy to be reduced as closely to slavery as possible, so that the socioeconomic and political elites do not feel threatened by the emergence of working class solidarity. In the culture of liberal bourgeois democracy it is trendy to detest the working class while defending the civil rights of the individual worker who may someday become a businessman and redeem himself as the Calvinist work ethic implies. In the last three decades it is fashionable not to use the term working class at all or to refer to its problems. There is something very seriously wrong when the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, Phil Neuenfeldt, in his effort to save the union against Republican efforts in that state argued during the 2012 elections that there was a growing movement “to reclaim the middle class”, refusing to use the word worker or labor.

The real focus of society, including mainstream trade unions like the conservative AFL-CIO, has been and remains on the middle class and its problems owing to its shrinkage numerically and of course economically. Especially in the US and to a large degree in EU, there is almost a pretense that the working class does not even exist, and society is made up only of one large middle class with variations.

No doubt, the class structure accounts for antagonism between labor and capital, as it does between labor and the broader middle classes that identify with capital where their aspirations rest. Of course, if everyone belonged to the capitalist class, there would be a classless utopian society made up of capitalists! Because workers have been the popular base for Communist parties and regimes, it is understandable that hard core anti-Communist conservatives and liberals would detest them. In the age of mass politics of pluralistic societies, the socioeconomic and political elites fear workers because of sheer numbers. The goal is to co-opt them by promising that their policies represent “all citizens”, but in essence there is enormous fear of labor in case the bourgeois parties fail to co-opt them so they can form and maintain a government. The way to maintain control is ceaseless anti-labor propaganda aimed to maintain the status quo.

In his classic work entitled Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Harry Braverman analyzes the role of the working class in modern society where the state as an instrument of capital places institutional constraints on workers. Written during the Nixon era, Braverman’s study undertook to analyze the changing “new working class” that include “occupations which serve as the repositories for specialized knowledge in production and administration: engineers, technicians, scientists, lower managerial and administrative aides and experts, teachers, etc. ”.

Class Identity in the Dominant Culture

A much broader definition of the working class is appropriate, considering that even the term itself is a source of confusion in the media and public dialogue. This confusion is deliberate because in bourgeois society class identity is very different than it was in the former Communist bloc. For example, it is interesting that a teacher or a bank teller would rarely identify themselves as “working class”, claiming middle class status instead. The question, of course, is if a banking service worker is middle class, what is the bank president? Is society made up of one large middle class and has capitalism managed to end the class system despite the enormous socioeconomic polarization?

Self-assigned class identity has a great deal to do with how the “dominant culture” that defines the norm in society views and projects the class system and specifically the working class, so that very few people in the working class would identify with it. In short, people prefer class identity of what they aspire to and not what they really are, which is also the basis of how they often vote. One reason for this is that the media and business establishment has been trying to wipe off the image of workers that they are indeed part of the working class and ought to have a working class consciousness. If we live in a bourgeois society, then the only acceptable class consciousness is bourgeois. Even when a fast food chain hires some teenager to flip burgers, or a department store chain hires someone to sell shoes, there is the promise that within months if not weeks that low-paid worker will earn the title “assistant manager”. There are no workers any more, just management that cannot be part of a labor union. Therefore, there is no working class consciousness and no need for a labor union either in the fast food areas or any service sector.

Given that the sociopolitical elites determine the dominant culture that control everything from political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, the subculture of the working class is always on the periphery rather than mainstream of society. Therefore, class identity necessarily gravitates toward the dominant culture and only a small percentage embraces the subculture, especially minorities. When elements of the subculture are commoditized – commercially exploited in art, music, fashion, sports, etc. – then that element of the working class subculture becomes an integral part (co-opted) by the dominant culture. Class identity itself can be commoditized and transformed thus assuming a sense of socio-cultural legitimacy. In the absence of being part of the dominant culture that is the domain of the elites, there is no socio-cultural legitimacy.

Workers are made to feel that they must either conform to the bourgeois institutional structure and dominant culture, or they have no one to blame but themselves for their failure. In the early 19th century, English industrial workers took out their frustrations against labor-saving machines in the textile industry. US auto workers had somewhat of an anti-labor-saving device reaction when robotics was introduced. Instead of placing the focus on the labor-management issue, it was worker against the machines.

Rather than focusing on class solidarity, workers tend to focus on why they dislike their follow workers for different reasons, why they dislike workers in another field of work, why they hate their specific job but would be happier doing another as workers, etc. All along, they are dreaming of success as defined by the dominant culture operating under and determined by capitalism. For this worldview of the working class to be inculcated into the mind of the public it takes enormous propaganda and ceaseless effort by all institutions, from political and educational to business and social.

There are many fine scholarly works on how the working class in the US and the Western World has been fighting a losing battle from the end of WWII until today. Braverman’s work is one of many that remains a classic, though a product of the 1969s. Complimenting Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital written during the Kennedy-Johnson era, Braverman’s work written from a Marxist perspective is worthy of study and analysis for the mid-20th century. My only comment is that “degradation of work” was never limited to the mid-20th century, but it goes as far back as the dawn of civilization and it will continue well into the 21st century.

If Braverman, Baran and Sweezy were writing today in the age of globalization and neoliberal policies devastating the working class across the world, they would probably see that capital concentration is at much higher levels than in the mid-20th century, and labor not just in the US but globally in much worse shape after the Reagan-Thatcher decade. Even more tragic, trade unions are weaker and some on the way to eclipse co-opted by the mainstream political parties and divided. Meanwhile, leftist politicians, of all varieties from center-left to far left, are divided and weak against the tide of neoliberal assault on workers, and a new wave of far right wing politics that is just as anti-labor as the traditional conservatives and many liberals.

Why are workers who keep society going the evil social class and arch enemy to be disciplined by the heroic capitalists? Why must they be forced into docile role in society without a voice in a pluralistic society if they belong in labor unions and forced to submit to whatever capital with the state’s backing offers them? What possible threat do workers represent to bourgeois society in the 21st century that is free of Communism challenging the West with an alternative social order?

Why is the mainstream media, politicians, well paid pro-business consultants and academics, and just about everyone who is not in the working class deems labor as a threat to be viewed no differently than a military force views its enemy in the battlefield? Even individual workers blame each other for problems in society or they blame groups of workers such as non-unionized service industry laborers blaming auto union workers for the high prices of cars. The enormous executive salaries and profiteering by the company during the upswing business cycle is not to blame for the price of the car, but the auto worker alone is to blame.

I was recently watching a European TV debate with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) representative who argued that everything would be great in the economy of any society, if only business had a completely free hand and workers were not the obstacle. She went on and on about how workers are the enemy of capitalist progress and how governments must contain them. At one point, when another panelist asked who would actually do the work in the absence of workers, she replied that workers’ role is no different than that of any tool under the control of the business owner. The implication was that as a tool, the workers ought to behave accordingly, and suppress any aspirations to their own humanity. As a fan of the rationalist Western tradition, I could not understand the hatred that this IMF representative harbored toward workers, considering that without them business could not function, even if the specific business relied largely on computers and robotics.

How can human beings detest the person who picks tomatoes in the fields, paves the roads, work in a steel factory, anyone who actually produces goods and services for society, instead of trading derivatives in some Wall Street office and making millions through parasitic methods that add no value to the economy? Why is the CEO and executives who drive a company into the ground while walking away with millions the heroes, while the workers who lose their jobs are the violins because they demand their money paid into the defrauded company pension fund? There is no problem when the general taxpayer has to bail out capitalism to the tune of several trillion dollars as was just in the last recession of 2008-2013, but God forbid a worker make any demands for a 25 cent wage and a better health care plan.

Owing to deplorable working conditions so that Western multinational corporations can make just a bit more profit, 1,129 garment workers were killed in the capital of Bangladesh, but there the outrage for the worst accident of its type in history was not the same by governments and businesses as when workers in factories or service sector want to be unionized. In short, businesses and government project the view that the worker is just a disposable commodity, and not a human being like his capitalist employer. This is reflected not only in slave labor but also in the reality of illegal work throughout many parts of the world, including all Western nations that have no problems calling themselves democratic but refusing to provide human rights to a segment of the labor force.

The culture of hating workers has become so pervasive that even many workers are ideologically anti-labor and see the working class in the very negative terms that the mainstream media depicts them. How has civilization evolved to hate people who work but praise those who defraud, and what does this say about our values? For the last three and half decades, I have been reading about and watching on TV – both US and European – politicians, journalists, academics, and especially business people on crusade against workers as though all calamities that befell planet earth emanate from anyone in the working class. Especially from the start of the Reagan-Thatcher anti-labor pro-business decade, the worker is the arch enemy of society, an enemy that must be reduced as closely to a docile minimum wage entity without any rights whatever as possible. In the second half of the 21st century, this mindset is part of a global trend. Hating workers is the safe thing to embrace, while praising anything to do with the working class is an anathema.

It is difficult to find any society from ancient civilizations to the present that honor workers who are responsible for the survival of those that do not work for any number of reasons, whether they old or ill, or they are owners of capital and have others working for them. Plato and Aristotle had nothing kind to say about slaves who did much of the work so that Athenian citizens like Plato and Aristotle could enjoy a life of leisure essential to creative endeavors. Athenians enjoyed a thriving culture and Spartans a thriving militaristic society because slaves did the work for them. If everyone worked more or less equally in the fields, mines, at sea, in arts and crafts, then there would not be as much time to devote to military affairs for Spartans or to culture and military affairs for Athens. Despite this reality that at the base of a civilization is labor, someone has to work otherwise civilization will become extinguished there has never been a celebration of the peasant or worker as a hero in society.

Like Plato and Aristotle, Confucius defended slavery and did not view people doing manual work as anything but lowly in society. In the hierarchical system that Confucius laid out, the value of workers doing the most difficult tasks in society were not appreciated nearly as much as those engaged in intellectual pursuits. There is hardly much appreciation for workers in ancient Egypt, although they kept the imperial system going. Similarly, the Romans had disdain for their slaves, peasants and workers, reflecting the kind of elitism that existed in classical Greece.

Reflected in the works of the intelligentsia, the master-slave social structure on which the mode of production was based started in Mesopotamia, as a result of wars and the institutionalization of private property. This mode of production prevailed in the Near East, North Africa, ancient Greece and Rome where attitudes about work reflected the disdain of workers, and the value system of the master class whether that class of master were landowners or merchants, invariably with a hegemonic role in state affairs running the government and military.

Anti-Labor Policies and Dilution of Democracy

There is a direct correlation between anti-labor policies that accelerated in the 1980s and the decline not just of the middle class and social justice, but of democracy in the Western World. There is, of course at the same time of labor’s declining influence in society, the rise of the corporate welfare state. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US and UK after 1980 where we see that the attack on the working class in general is accompanied by a sharp rise in corporate gifts in the form of the fiscal legislation, subsidies and laws that favor capital and its movement on a world scale. For example, the corporate empire of the media giant Murdoch took place under Thatcher whose anti-labor pro-business policies made it possible.

Among the many hundreds of books and articles on the American working class losing its role in society in the last seventy years, an article by James Gregory, Southernizing the American Working Class, (Labor History, Vol. 39, No 2, 1998) accurately depicts how in the post-WWII era the American working class gradually lapsed into the status of black southern workers; a role that some labor historians compare with Third World workers. Indeed, the American labor force once the envy of the world, has experienced gradual downward mobility, especially from the end of the Vietnam War to the present, and rapidly after the Reagan anti-labor era. At the core of this issue is that workers’ American Dream of owning a home, a car and having the ability to send the kids to college so they can move into the lower middle class has become a distant dream reserved for the few.

In short, the promise of capitalism and democracy has not presented the working class with the fruits they expected, so the institutional mainstream has been appealing to American patriotism and asking people to remain loyal to the status quo because the nation has enemies, like Muslim terrorists. Is there any kind of relationship between the war on terror and the American Dream for the worker? The answer is yes, because the economy has become weaker considerably in the last six decades in relationship to the rest of the world, but military spending has remained very high and the sums devoted to keep corporate welfare strong has made it impossible for the working class to enjoy the fruits of its own labor. How long can the institutional structure remain untouched before there is serious political and social upheaval? It is difficult to say what the boiling point will be in the otherwise fairly conservative American society that fears revolution more than it does a Great Depression that may be coming before the middle of this century.

The working class of EU members was actually making very good progress partly because the social safety net was not as seriously damaged in the rush to adopt neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 1990s as was the case in the US. Moreover, the EU does not have the burden of the massive defense spending problem of the US, and it has a tradition where trade unions have played a role in achieving political consensus under a liberal bourgeois political economy. More significant, Europe has a greater variety of democracies, ranging from the very progressive Norwegian model that some wish to emulate to the more conservative elitist system that exists in Germany where “labor aristocracy” (highly paid trade unionists) are a world apart from unorganized immigrant workers barely making a living.

The major attack on labor has come in the last ten years, largely because the global recession that started in 2007-8 has convinced governments that workers must pay for the losses of the banks and corporations as well as the fiscal problems governments are facing. The so-called austerity measures that either have been implemented officially by the IMF in a number of countries including Ireland, Portugal, Greece and other parts of the world, or unofficially as in Spain, France, Italy, etc. have entailed massive income redistribution from labor to capital. This is clearly seen in statistics that various European and OECD entities have provided, but also in studies that universities and labor institutes have conducted. Why has income redistribution taken place to strengthen capital? The assumption is that the stronger capital is in society, the healthier the economy. Does this assumption hold true, however, if capital is not more equitably distributed so that there can be greater economic and social justice as well as a viable democracy?

Conclusions: Can Democracy Survive with a Weak Working Class?

From the 1940s when labor was at the zenith of its influence in society until today, we have seen a very radical transformation that took place as a result of government policy intended to strengthen capital at the expense of labor. In order to accomplish this goal, there was a much broader institutional effort where mainstream media was at the core of the anti-labor campaign. Whereas during the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies newspapers devoted articles on labor affairs, by the end of the century it is almost impossible to find any newspaper, TV, radio, or web page devoting any articles on labor issues. By contrast, there is no end to media outlets devoting all kinds of news and analysis on business matters, as though business does not require workers to run it but somehow runs itself and workers have simply vanished from the face of the earth.

The value system of the bourgeois society is reflected in our daily institutional dealings. This issue was perfectly captured when Pope Francis wondered why it is that media goes into a hysteria mode when the stock market drop by a couple of percentage points, but never mention that a homeless woman dies on a park bench in the middle of winter in New York city? What does it say about society when its entire focus is on markets that benefit the small percentage of the rich, while the many problems of the many are ignored?

Can such a society be a functioning democracy, or simply call itself so for the sake of appearances? By the early 21st century, it is much clearer to look back around the middle of the 20th century to see how the gradual demise of organized labor and the institutionalization of anti-labor ideology and policies are directly linked to downsizing the social welfare state. Many scholars wonder if democracy can survive without a strong middle class. My question is can there be a future of democracy in the absence of a solid working class that in essence supports the viable middle class?

Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University.


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