Karl Marx Was Right (Pretty Much)!

Karl Marx spent a lifetime arguing that the motor of history, what caused social change, was the “class struggle.” (Marx said other, more complicated things in relation to the class struggle . I don’t care to talk about them right now because they are obscure and there is little agreement among Marxists about what they mean.) Marx also did not assign enough importance to technological progress, it’s true. That would happen largely as a result of ever greater densities of population, irrespective of any political system. Many people in close contact in cities are more likely to come up with better ways to get things done than few people who barely ever meet anyone outside their small group. Literacy also helped, of course, by helping preserve accumulated knowledge. With these major lacunas, I think Marx was mostly right.

Marx had an elaborated conceptualization of social class that he never really completed. First, what “class” is not, according to Marx (also according to Delacroix). Class explicitly does not refer to “the rich and the poor” as many think. That would have been of limited usefulness when Marx was writing and it would be utterly useless now. The fact is that the distribution of wealth in modern, capitalist societies (the ones Marx had in mind) is continuous, that is, there is not break-up point. Next to the person, or family who owns $1,000, 000 there is one that owns $999,000, and next to that one, there is another that owns $998,999. Likewise, next to the person or family who owns $50, there is one that has $51 in wealth. And so forth. Moreover, who owns what is not fixed except at the lowest end. I was poor when I was thirty, I am not anymore. People who own vast wealth are liable to lose large portions of it in a day or two, thanks to the normal operation of the stock market, for example. Thus, there is frequent re-shuffling and rich and poor are pseudo-categories and therefore, useless.

Marx explained at length that what social class one belongs to is determined by one’s “relation to the means of production.” This is a bad translation of the bad German that prevailed at the time Marx was writing. Generations of Marxists everywhere have striven to conserve this opaque language because it made them sound profound, not least in their own eyes, and because it made them look like possessors of higher, “scientific” knowledge. Let me dispose of the scientific claim right away. It’s pure propaganda, deliberate bullshit, one of Marx’s public relations achievements. He made his claims seem more serious than they otherwise would have seemed by calling them “scientific” at a time when the word conveyed much intellectual prestige. Again, it’s bullshit. What makes anything scientific is that it can be refuted by comparison with reality. Another way to say nearly the same thing is to say that scientific claims can be tested. (Don’t worry about the “nearly” in the previous sentence; the statement is good enough for our purpose.) Marx’s claims cannot be tested in a rigorous, logical manner. All Marxists can do is to cry, “See, Marx said so,” after the fact, whenever something develops more or less according to one of Marx’s many unclear predictions. One issue about which Marx was clear was the class struggle. More on this below.

The world in which Marx lived was different from ours in important respects two of which are crucial for understanding the idea of social class in the 21st century.

1 When Marx was observing and writing, in the second half of the 19th century, land was losing much of its age-old importance as a source of income, in comparison with manufacturing and mining, and later, railroads. While agricultural productivity was making steady gains in the richest countries, manufacturing and, in its wake, mining, were growing explosively thanks to the Industrial Revolution. (Note what I am not saying: Income from agriculture was not shrinking in absolute terms, it was expanding.) It was clear to most observers then that the quick way to riches was to capture the fast rising income generated by those industries. The best spigot was thus the material industries of manufacturing, mining and later, railroads.

The claimants to this income were uncommonly well defined. On the one side were a small number of mostly family-based companies like the Krupp in Germany, the Schneider in France, the Rockefeller in America, and so on. These highly visible companies owned the manufacturing plants, the mines, and later the railroads. Here is a useful digression: Marx seemed not to have understood the importance of publicly owned companies in which small people and other groups could invest their small savings. He probably thought big corporations would remain in a tiny number of hands forever. Correspondingly, he did not understand well the role of stock exchanges either. He was wrong on this, wrong by large omission.

The other claimants to manufacturing, mining and railroad income were also highly visible. They were the masses of workers flocking to the cities and mining centers from the countryside. Those people were visible because of where they lived, near the centers of cities. Originally, they were also poorly paid and overworked. Marx observed that they were in a favorable situation to organize along labor union lines and also politically to an extend unimaginable by their peasant forebears. This, because of their geographic concentration and because of their ability to realize that they shared a certain type of misery.

From these accurate observations, it was fairly natural to predict that there would eventually be a clash between the super-rich owners of the means of production, manufacturing plants, mines and railroads, and those who toiled for them. It looked like there was at any time, a zero-plus sum game being played: Whatever the owner took, the workers did not get, and vice-versa: capitalists (owners) vs proletariat (industrial workers, broadly defined).

But everyone who was not a worker was not a capitalist in that sense, and everyone who was not a capitalist was not necessarily an industrial worker. The lawyers who serviced the capitalists could be expected to join with them. The tavern owners whose own income came from workers’ drinking would side with the workers, and so forth. This scheme makes it clear that a starving lawyer could be in the capitalist camp and a prosperous pub owner in that of the workers. Hence the idea that people would line up politically according to their “relationship to the mean of production.” This is a more sophisticated idea and also one much more applicable than the “rich vs poor” of the popular imagery of social class.

2  The second big difference between Marx’s time and ours is the size of government. Throughout the 19th century. governments everywhere were small and poor. There was no income tax; they derived revenue largely from customs (border taxes) and from excise taxes. Governments then were a fiscal burden on everyone if not equally, then commonly, but a fairly light burden most of the time.

Today, governments in the developed world are large to huge. They consume anywhere between 40% approximately and 70% of Gross Domestic Product. They are also everywhere by far the largest accessible source of income.

Superficially, the amorphous, ill-defined “service sector” seems even larger since it accounts regularly for more than 70% of GDP (in rich countries including the US). However, it’s fragmented, heterogeneous, controlled (to the extent that is is controlled) by a myriad owners. Much of it is not very profitable, as opposed to 19th century manufacturing, for example. The services workforce is also extremely fragmented and it tends to be transient. It would be difficult for that workforce, or for anyone else to get together to capture anything of value. There is not much to take from the service sector and it would be hard to get.

By contrast, the large to very large chunk of money that is in governments’ hands at any one time is easy to capture. It does not take much more than a well engineered vote to get one’s own hands on it. Furthermore, unlike private sector’s funds that depend on the vagaries of the market and on management’s competence, government grants in various forms tend to have a long shelf life. The WWII subsidy to chinchilla farmers was only repealed about ten years ago, fifty years late! Civil service pension funds are another case in point. Obtaining money from government entities is well worth the effort. The government is both a big spigot and an easy one to turn on.

I know I promised to tell you that Marx was almost right. Well, what we see in America today is a classical Marxian class struggle. The classes in conflict are not those Marx described because he was writing almost 150 years ago and he had not foreseen the monstrous growth of government. (No one else had.) The Obamanian/Obamist faction of the Democratic Party has engineered and is engineering an alliance between the main social class of today, government workers, on the one hand and a few other, opportunistically selected groups, on the other hand.

First among the government workers class allies are the small minority of workers in labor unions (maybe 7 or 8% of all employed and unemployed people). Labor unions have always used government to grab what their own muscle failed to achieve. Second, are the majorities of racial minorities. Many – but not most- are poor for reasons that ceased a long time ago to be related to racism. The largest racial minority, so-called “Latinos,” is heterogeneous and many of its members are immigrants or one generation removed from immigration. The Obamists are trying to grab them before they meld into the traditional American dream.

The second largest minority is “blacks.” Only about half of so-called “African-Americans” are descendants of slaves with a historical grievance that is supposed to be addressed by affirmative action. Many in that half, of southern church background, are addicted to resounding speeches about injustice and to the idea that the remedy to their ills can only come from government. They will vote for the best “injustice speech” giver irrespective of what they gain afterwards. (Usually nothing. The Democratic Party had been using and abusing blacks for thirty years.) The other half of Americans with African blood are immigrants and their children. Like Obama himself, in my book, they have no historical claim on the nation. That second half of the second minority might surprise us soon, politically. They, are experiencing normal American social mobility, like general Colin Powell for example, the son of Jamaican immigrants. They are at best temporary members of the Obamian recruits, I think. He, and his Left-Democrat conspirators cannot count on them for the long haul.

A flat and slow-growing economy is always especially hard on immigrants. That’s the main reason western Europe has always – until now – had worse immigrant problems than we have. Immigrants in America open a small business and their kids go to to college and they become the doctors and lawyers and engineers our normally expanding economy requires. Immigrants in France, for example, go to college and then remain underemployed forever because the French escalator is hardly moving at all.

There are no other racial minorities in America today that want to be considered minorities. They are all doing well without recourse to government favor. Many may have voted for Obama without understanding what they were doing. If I were an American communist trying to take over by legal means, I would not count on them further. In the same breath, I would refer to the scarce but disproportionately influential American Jews. I think more than 75% voted for Obama. That was a downright perverse and obstinate vote. I don’t think many are communists. I suspect many more are coming to their senses right now. (I may be placing too much confidence in an unsystematic sample here. All the Jews I know are conservatives. Ten years ago, I did not even know of Jewish conservatives.)

Finally, the Obamists exercise control over a large under-class that they are trying to enlarge yet: All those who are not working but who exist temporarily or permanently thanks to government payments. Marx had described something like this when he spoke of the politically unstable lumpenproletariat, the sub-working class “dressed in rags.”

So, here we are: On the one side, the large and growing class of government employees and the small allied class of union members. Both classes earn considerably more in wages and benefits than the employed in the private sector, nearly twice as much on the average. One bus driver in my small town belongs to both classes, as a government employee and as a union member. Last year, he earned $160,000 (that’s with overtime, let’s be frank). The job requires a high-school education. (I hope he is the one bus driver in this town who is not habitually gruff.) This is the same town where coffee shop baristas with a college degree earn $9/ hour if they are lucky, with no benefits. (I am speaking of Liberal Arts and Environmental Studies majors. Again, let’s be frank!)

To summarize: Government employees and union members owe their superior earnings to their relationship to the means of re-distributing income forcibly, government. They seek to extend and consolidate their hold on government with the help of precariously allied ethnic minorities and of unstable recipients of welfare under various names. On the other side is everyone else, everyone who does not work for government and who pays the taxes that feed the others. They too are defined by their relationship not to the “mode of production,” (see above) but to the spigot of government.

Here is a key figure: Almost 50% of Americans paid no federal income tax last year. That’s a lot of people who are not against the government confiscating legitimate income though legal means.

Once you start looking at the events and policies of the past 18 months as elements of a normal class-struggle, you gain much clarity. And, incidentally, this thesis does not contradict my repeated statements that the Obama administration and the President himself, are not very bright. They are relying on an old play-book that tells them pretty much what to do and that does not require much inventiveness.

I am astounded – if I say so myself – by the predictive power of my historical explanation. We even have the third highest elected official in the land ( third in order of succession to the President) engaging overtly in fascist intimidation: Speaker Pelosi threatened around August 16th “to investigate” those who oppose a mosque near Ground Zero! (See my  column on this: “The ‘Ground Zero’ Mosque Issue Clarified,” posted 8/20/10)

And, by the way, for those of you who got Cs in public school, or Bs in private school because the school needed the tuition, no, I am not confused. The Obamians are a species of communists and, communism is just one brand of fascism. See my two essays on the topic on this blog:“Fascism Explained,” posted 5/27/09 and “How About Communism?” posted 6/1/09.

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About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Current Events, Socio-Political Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Karl Marx Was Right (Pretty Much)!

  1. James Hair says:

    Thank you. Sincerely, Jim.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      You are welcome, Jim. Good to get feedback, any feedback when you spend time throwing writings into the great Internet void! If you don’t mind, tell me how old you are and where you live. For both, approximations will do fine.

      • Jim Hair says:

        I’m fifty, live in Brooklyn Heights, NYC, and work in film production. I discovered your website a few months ago and look forward to your posts. Jim.

      • jacquesdelacroix says:

        Thank you. That’s heartening. Since I can’t be rich, or famous, or good-looking, I would like to be useful. Please, share my blog every time you think about it. Working from little, parochial, time-warped Santa Cruz, California, it’s a special pleasure to learn that I have a reader in NYC. I hope I will have more.

  2. Helene Hagan says:

    Here is the link to Tinawiren video:

  3. J. McCrea says:

    You present a good one sided argument. You fail to mention however as to why the income of private sector employees is much lower then public sector employees and that is due to the erosion of the strength of the labor unions. Your ‘one bus driver’ income is anecdotal and likely a half-truth, like much of the conservative argument. By the way, the average bus driver salary in Santa Cruz County is about $35,000, http://swz.salary.com//salarywizard/layoutscripts/swzl_salaryresults.asp?hdSearchByOption=0&hdLocationOption=1&hdKeyword=School%20Bus%20Driver&hdJobCategory=CS02&hdZipCode=&hdStateMetro=300&hdJobCode=ED03000270&hdJobTitle=School%20Bus%20Driver&hdCurrentTab=&hdNarrowDesc=Non-Profit%20and%20Social%20Services

    The private sector wages have not kept up with public sector wages for two reasons, a massive wave of immigration and the hobbling of labor unions by government (Ronald Reagan and big business). Labor unions have weakened considerable in the last thirty years do to a concerted effort on the part of big business and the government which has been purchased by big business. Big business is the largest welfare recipient in our country in the form of tax breaks and government contracts. Can you say Halliburton? It’s not that the federal government has outpaced the private sector in wages and job growth it is that the private sector hasn’t kept up! Real wages, statistically, have NOT kept up with inflation and growth. The middle class in America has NOT gotten wealthier, it’s gotten poorer immigrants, especially illegal, and weak unions mean cheaper labor. FACT

    Yes %50 of Americans paid no income tax, but all public employees do. But check these facts out since you say they matter “ In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.7%.” Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2010).

    Your brand of libertarianism fails just like communism does, it’s idealistic. It asserts that we will all be rational consumers of our resources, we are not though. The point of government and restrictions is to contain that irrational consumption. Left unchecked we eat all the food and poop everywhere and we are screwed. You think otherwise? Than I can see why you think Marx was right, you’re both dreamers.

    We will never agree on where to build roads and how much to commit to that process without a government, by the people! Roads lead to travel, that leads to commerce and money made in the private sector. That is the value of government. We have schools, public, yes! Because an educated country is a successful country! Show me a successful economy without a strong public education system. Government is put into power by the people to increase the public good for all.

    Your position is motivated only by your desire to put more wealth into the hands of that 42.7% detailed above. I wonder if your own personal wealth has not been created by the Koch brothers and your attempted spreading their propaganda.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Thanks. Several interesting arguments worth pursuing plus a little bit of delirium!

      The bus driver income figure comes from the Santa Cruz Sentinel. I specified it included overtime. I trust that particular newspaper when it makes this kind of pronouncements because it’s a firmly left-liberal organ, not likely to attack “labor” gratuitously. Thanks for the links but I think my trusting the newspaper, for the reasons I gave you, is a superior research method in this case. The fact is that no one denied the assertion made in a big title. Good enough for me. I don’t rely on that admittedly anecdotal evidence. The numbers are published frequently in the likes of Financial Times (Left) and the Wall Street Journal (Right) and you don’t deny them. I would be interested in anything that contradicts the notion that public sector wage figures are much higher than the private sector’s. The assertion is in fact central to my argument.

      The idea that it’s private sector wages that have not kept up rather than public sector wages being too high befuddles my primitive sense of logic. It’s inherently untestable.

      The statement, I have been hearing for ten years, that private sector wages have not kept up with inflation, is specious. Wages and benefits have much more than kept up if you look at anything beyond a five-year period, any five-year period. The forces determining that workers would get more income from benefits rather than in cash are complex but they are mostly from the Left. Conservatives wanted (still want) to privatize Social Security, remember. Same thing with health care. I am pretty sure you cannot have forgotten that one!

      You don’t seem well informed about libertarianism (small “l”). I don’t blame you; it’s our fault; we are not doing a good job reaching out. In a capsule: We want to replace insofar as is possible government action, which is always coercive, with contracts. And, of course, we can agree on where to build a road. There are long established democratic rules that can be used within the context of contracts as well as in connection with government.

      Your parting shot about my “wealth” made my wife laugh bitterly. Here is a summary: I came to the country in 1963 a quarter-less immigrant. (I was not “penniless,” I had pennies.) with no help, my hands in my pocket, whistling bravely. I was a high-school dropout in my country of origin. Zip forward: My wealth consists of a house I own in equal shares with the bank and a little in savings that will not last as long as me unless I die earlier than I planned. The federal government is also giving me a monthly stipend (SS) it takes from you by force to compensate me for all the money it took from my by force for forty years and largely (not completely) wasted. I live modestly and very well. It was not even hard getting where I am. I have nothing to brag about. I wish I had!This is a great country, a generous society and much more than fair.

      I don’t know who the Koch brothers are. If they conspired to make me rich, they did a lousy job. Fortunately, they never gathered the nerve to demand that I sign my soul and my brain over to them. I would have told them to piss off!

      Why speculate on my motivations instead of asking me? Why does it seem to me that people on the Left can rarely communicate with the other side without finally resorting to such insulting speculations? Please, correct me if I am wrong.And do tell who the Koch brothers are. I am sure some of my readers are burning with curiosity too.

      Thanks for taking the trouble to write a comment.

  4. Lawrence Marcus says:

    Touche ….Jacque!

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Larry: I appreciate a lot that you take the trouble to comment but this comment: “Touche,” means: “Touch me.” No way, forget it!

      • Lawrence Marcus says:

        I thought it meant well done, I guess if have to go back and review my 10th grade french. The dictionary says ” an expression borrowed from French used 1)to admit that an opponent in an argument has made a good point” No more complements!

      • jacquesdelacroix says:

        OK, I was messing with your mind. American teachers of French usually don’t know French. So, forget it. It turns out in French, the accent is not prettification but essential to meaning. “Touche,” with an accent on the e that I am not able to do with this software, means “touched” as in touched by the sword in gentlemanly fencing. Without the accent, it’s the imperative, “Touch,” as in “touch it” or “touch me.” No more homosexual advances, please!

  5. Scott cochran says:

    J,

    I don’t comment on every posting, but I do read (and love) every one.

    I especially like your comment about communism being a form of fascism. That makes sense to me. I was always taught in a public school, where I mostly got A’s, that fascism (far right) is diametrically opposite from communism (far left) but they always seemed rather similar to me.

    I am surprised you did not comment on this:

    Your brand of libertarianism fails just like communism does, it’s idealistic. It asserts that we will all be rational consumers of our resources, we are not though. The point of government and restrictions is to contain that irrational consumption. Left unchecked we eat all the food and poop everywhere and we are screwed.

    So I will for you. Since no one disputes that some amount of government regulation is needed, to keep the peace, even limit the most egregious externalities (though the commenter and I will differ on where to draw that line). But forcefully commandeering the wealth of one party to buy political support for another for the glorious goal of “redistributing the wealth” is not designed to contain “irrational consumption” (though that is not a legitimate duty of government either) it is self-serving theft – nothing else.

    As a small business owner, there is one thing I want from the government- to get out of the way. I know what to do, how to do it, I just need to be allowed to do it without being regulated and taxed into oblivion. Obama care will force me to buy something that in 10 years I have been asked for once (out of hundreds of consultants that have worked for my agency), virtually all consultants would rather get a higher rate than medical benefits that may be duplicated elsewhere. I have hit my punitive ceiling of $250K, so I have laid off my staff (like I did last year when I hit that amount) and will lay low until 2011. Pity, I’d rather hire some more people and grow the company, but can’t against this headwind. (And wont ever expand beyond 40 people if ObamaCare is not overturned).

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Well, you sure responded to that part of the comment better than I would have. It’s the miracle of the internet. I would have been glad, I would be glad to host a piece from you on this blog on the subject. not simply a comment but an article.

      I did not ressond to every one of McCrea’s points because I suspected he is a drive-by commentator. If I am wrong on this, I will dispute him point by point.

  6. Pingback: Karl Marx Was Right (Pretty Much) « Notes On Liberty

  7. Rick Searle writes the following:

    This is an interesting way to frame the issue, though I think your language is overheated.
    An interesting question might be WHY is this the case? As some libertarians, such as Peter Thiel or Tyler Cowen, have stated inequality is growing everywhere on account of a LACK OF ECONOMIC GROWTH. Median incomes have been flat since the 1970s. It is therefore to be accepted when the economy becomes a zero sum game that the “class war” you depict would become a reality. But how do we get out of it?

    Your thoughts, Doc?

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Rick: First things first (and only that) : Median incomes have not been flat since the 70s. That’s another cheap leftist trick. Two reasons: 1 American wage earners have taken their raises in the form of health care benefits. 2 While it’s true that many items have become more expensive in real terms, others have declined, such as television sets, of course. More importantly (I don’t mind being corrected) none of the common measures of inflation take into adequate account the tremendous improvement in the quality of ordinary objects whose name have not changed since the 70s: a television set is not a television set anymore, it’s greatly better in every way; automobiles are incomparably better (except perhaps for their looks, a very subjective issue), as for personal computers, I still have my 1983 Kaypro (in a box), and I rest my case on this triumphant statement!

      I can’t quite respond or argue with any reasoning that starts with the statement above about median incomes. I was thinking then, I am thinking now. It’s obvious to me that nearly everyone is richer now. Possible exception, and a major one, I will admit, is housing in some parts of the country. Of course, that is being corrected as we speak!

      Of course, what’s obvious to me could be all optical illusion. I would need strong and clear data to start thinking otherwise. I can’t consider a world where every little upstart graduate student with a half-baked study can overcome my informal observation.

      And I especially detest people who take my on long irrelevant, inarticulate trips under the guise of proving to me how wrong my assertions are. If they mislead, me, I usually hunt them down and I won’t tell you what happens next.

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