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MARX AND LABOR – A SKETCH

June 23, 2017

MARX AND LABOR – A SKETCH

The 20th century marked by two World Wars, wars in Korea and Viet Nam, an atomic bombing, The Great Depression, the Cold War, the end of the New Deal and lesser events certainly gave historians a vast trove from which to prognosticate. Most of such events can now be found to have been unnecessary in retrospect had we employed good policy and diplomacy, but accounts of such times and events cannot capture the fervor of the moment. Even I, now a peacenik, would at the time never have hesitated to shoot Hitler on sight. I think historians can write about events but have a tough time in describing the public mood surrounding such events. I still feel a lingering rage for Hitler, the homicidal maniac, for instance. Who can forget such massive atrocities?

On the labor front, we would do well to remember the previous century as well, the 19th, a century when revolution stalked Europe, a century that began (along with eleven years of the preceding century) with the remnants of the French Revolution in which the peasantry cheered when decapitated heads of the nobility bounced down into baskets followed by Napoleon’s emperorship and a round trip to Elba. Waterloo ended that caper and the Western World breathed a sigh of relief, only to be confronted with another crisis with the advent of Marx and Engels and others who traded on class and labor and revolution in their responses to the gathering efficiencies of the Industrial Revolution then underway where human labor was a mere cog in the capitalists’ profit machine.

I think Marx correctly described the problem then and now (labor today is a mistreated cog in the capitalist profit-making machine) but was wrong in how to address the problem. I give him and A for his diagnosis and an F for his prognosis. His ideas of revolution and state control of the economy following a period of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” could never work then or now, as we have seen since where many so-called communist countries have lowered Marx’s ideas a notch and are now state capitalist economies, economies in which economic policies are not based on demand and competition but rather by politicians from above, and I hope this first step (a still short step) is a move toward their becoming market economies. I think we might fairly equate Marx’s vision as that of a political Luddite, whose plan was not to destroy the looms of Leeds and Manchester but the politics of the capitalist state.

Marx’s radical plan to even out things between capital and labor in response to the inequities brought about by the Industrial Revolution would fare even worse today as we are in a transitory stage between the Industrial Revolution and what we have dubbed “The Information Age,” which highlights how to value differences between brain and brawn and, perhaps, robots.

A new crisis, as usual, follows a newly-informed and innovative economics. Human labor will have a new problem, to wit: automation, which also has international implications since, among other things, automated production of goods and services here can be increasingly accomplished as cheaply as in China and other Third World countries and, with the consuming market here, we might even enjoy domestic prices cheaper than those of imports (assuming such countries do not involve currency manipulation and other forms of unfair pricing in disguise).

So where are we in this rapidly accelerating Information Age with its labor-supplanting automated production of goods and services? We are at the beginning. The old Industrial Age which spawned radicals such as Marx is history, though his description of how labor of that day and age was mistreated still has application to today since Powell and Reagan, who collaborated in ending the New Deal and our unprecedented economic growth the New Deal brought us after WW II. Labor for the last four decades has found no movement (as adjusted for inflation) in median wages paid while the Dow has gone from 750 to around 20,000. How could such a wide difference be accounted for? Why should one sector of the economy be allowed to hog virtually all of the income of the economy? Politics.

So how do we correct this wide chasm in sharing of the economy’s income? Marxian revolution? No, wrong day, wrong age and wrong medicine. Continuation of laissez faire do-nothing politics and tax cuts for the rich and corporate class? No, that’s the present policy, a policy that keeps us on the edge of recession. What then? A new brand of politics fashioned on the framework of the (old) New Deal, an old brand that brought historic prosperity to America for more than forty years. We will need to change politicians, and the sooner the better.

Every “ism” is subject to abuse, including capitalism and especially libertarianism, but we need not have a Marxian or other form of revolution or a Luddite response to automation in order to reform such a system. We can get out of this mess the same way we got into it, that is, by a political response that reinstates fairness and equity in sharing the fruits of our economy. It can be done because it has been done, and the sooner we can rid ourselves of the influence of today’s toxic libertarianism the better, so let’ get on with it.    GERALD      E

 

 

 

 

 

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