This study is an elaboration of a thesis developed in a memorandum on "The Changed Character of the Working Class" written in the summer of 1984 and submitted for publication to Workers World newspaper in October 1984. 1 At that time we said that high technology, that is, the scientific-technological revolution, had become such an enormous economic factor that it had changed the social composition of the U.S. working class.
The basic content of the change has been a massive general shift of the workers away from relatively high-skilled, high-paid jobs into lower-skilled, lower-paid service jobs. Because of this shift, the social weight of the lower-skilled, lower-paid workers, made up mostly of Black and Latin people and women, has become preponderant in the general workforce of the U.S.
At the time of that writing there was already abundant data to confirm our general analysis. It may have appeared, however, that the data was still of only a tentative and conditional character and therefore inconclusive.
However, a new flood of statistics based on studies of not only the 1980 U.S. census but updated reports since then has lent further support to our thesis. One of these valuable studies to which we refer later is by Ward Morehouse and David Dembo of the Council on International and Public Affairs and includes a series of special reports, the first written in October 1984 under the title "The Underbelly of the U.S. Economy: Joblessness and Pauperization of Work in America." 2 These studies were also bolstered by a United Auto Workers (UAW) Research Bulletin of May-June 1985. 3
Finally, an official report issued February 6, 1986, by the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment fully confirms our analysis. While the full study containing some 450 pages of data was not available at the time of the writing of this book, abundant excerpts were published in many newspapers throughout the country. 4
A principal finding of this report was that in the five years from 1979 to 1984 as many as 11.5 million workers either lost their jobs or shifted to lower-paying service jobs. "Nearly half of all workers displaced from 1979 to 1984 worked in manufacturing industries such as steel, auto, industrial equipment, textiles and apparel. [As many as] 45% have taken a pay cut and two-thirds of those were earning less than 80% of their former income." The report went on to state, "Given the pace of technological and structural economic change, [many more workers] may be left behind."
With regard to the nature of the shift away from the heavy industries, the report said that 95% of the new jobs created in the period studied were lower-paid service jobs. In 1984, the report said, the average hourly wage in manufacturing was $9.18. However, the average hourly wage for production and non-supervisory workers in all service-producing sectors was $7.52. It would be correct to assume that the gap between the higher wage scale and the lower ones has since widened and not narrowed.
This is a social trend wholly unanticipated by those who had expected the great advances and discoveries in science and technology to have brought about "upward mobility." This is what was looked for from the scientific and technological revolution. Instead, all of the studies disclose a clear trend in the opposite direction.
Instead of raising the level of Black, Latin, women and other oppressed workers in capitalist society to that of the higher paid, more privileged, so-called aristocratic sector of workers, the scientific-technological revolution is mercilessly and ruthlessly leveling down and demolishing the higher social stratum in the working class and reducing it to the level of the lower paid.
While the apologists for the ruling class are celebrating this new condition of the working class, they stop short at drawing the deeper social and political significance it has for the process of the newly emerging social composition of the working class. The growing demolition of vast sections of highly paid workers and their sinking to the level of the more oppressed sections spells out a new constellation of internal forces in the working class. It will, for one thing, fundamentally alter the relationship between Black and white workers.
This developing relationship bodes ill for capitalist apologists because it discloses a new material basis for classwide solidarity and even a revolutionary potential for the working class. The new composition of the working class will give it a more homogeneous character and limit greatly the racist, hierarchical stratification upon which the ruling class has been able to thrive and which it has cultivated and promoted all these years.
It will inevitably shift the political balance away from the more privileged layers of the working class in favor of the hitherto underprivileged, unrepresented and more scattered oppressed workers. The internal political relations between the different strata of the working class will become more harmonized on the level of working class politics. This new trend in the working class goes contrary to the historical tendency of capitalist development in the past.
The scientific-technological revolution is a truly global phenomenon and should not be assessed solely on the basis of its national manifestation in the U.S. Its influence stretches from one end of the globe to the other. Its effects can be felt in Tokyo and Sweden, in France and Mexico, all over the globe. (Its development in the socialist countries is not the object of our study here.)
It is a phenomenon that cannot be reversed. Those who bemoan its existence today must look to the future, not to a return to the past, which in any case is impossible.
Of course, it is possible for the growth of the productive forces, of science and technology, to slow down and possibly stagnate, as happened in the period immediately after the great economic crisis of the early 1930s. Even then, however, research and development continued, if at a slower pace. But what was developed slowly in the laboratories at that time took on a feverish momentum once the buildup began for the Second World War.
It is wrong to underestimate high technology by viewing it as only a narrow sector of the economy. This was the conclusion of the study by the United Auto Workers (UAW) research department printed in the May-June 1985 Research Bulletin and referred to earlier: "High-tech firms represent only a small portion of our economy and with high projected growth fewer than a million jobs are likely to be created in the next decade in high-tech firms."
That may be true enough. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report confirmed it: "Jobs in computer and semiconductor manufacturing are unlikely to rescue many workers from traditional manufacturing jobs because employment in these industries is small." And of course, the total number of jobs in computer and semiconductor industries is small by comparison with the overall workforce, which counts in the tens of millions.
But this is an evasion of the fundamental issue involved in the scientific-technological revolution. While it is a very narrow sector, its influence is decisive for all sectors of the economy.
These technological changes alter fundamental social trends and bring to the fore new political forces. It is therefore wholly inadequate to point to the mere number of workers directly involved in this particular narrow sector without showing its overwhelming influence in all phases of the capitalist economy. Moreover, high technology has fueled the enormous growth of the military-industrial complex.
It need only be recalled that in July 1985 the heretofore leading civilian corporation, General Motors, acquired Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and its computer services. The whole purpose was to acquire high technology and move this civilian sector of the economy closer to the military-industrial complex. Even such a homespun company as Singer Sewing Machine, a household name for decades, as of February 1986 abandoned the business of manufacturing sewing machines by announcing that it would dismantle its plants (at who knows what cost to the workers) and move completely into the aerospace industry. Now its only connection to sewing machines will be the marketing of "Singer" machines made by other companies.
The justification for each new social system as against its predecessor is that it raises society to a higher level. It has done so in each succeeding social order by raising the productivity of labor. The great achievement of capitalism was that it not only promoted a tempestuous development of the productive forces, of science and invention on an unheard-of scale, but it raised the productivity of labor. Over a period of centuries it laid the basis for raising the material standards of society and the wage levels of the working class as a whole.
The distinctive feature of this particular phase of capitalist development, the scientific-technological phase, is that while it enormously raises the productivity of labor, it for the first time simultaneously lowers the general wage patterns and demolishes the more high-skilled, high-paid workers. It enhances the general pauperization of the population.
At a time when the ruling class is boasting of capitalist prosperity, the two independent studies already cited, one by the UAW Research Department and the other by the Council on International and Public Affairs, have confirmed that halfway through the 1980s there were more than 15.6 million unemployed and underemployed (unemployed, discouraged and part-time workers). How is it possible for there to be so-called capitalist prosperity and the addition of millions of workers to the workforce, as the Reagan administration boasts, and at the same time an expanding pool of unprecedented numbers of unemployed?
The reason lies deep in the objective process of capitalist production. The latter even in its most prosperous phase of the capitalist economic cycle continually expels more and more workers from the productive apparatus. The difference introduced by the scientific-technological revolution is simply that it has vastly accelerated this continuous expulsion of more and more workers from the process of production, even in a period of so-called growth.
No one knows what the economic situation will be once the economic cycle of development progresses, as it eventually will, from the so-called prosperous phase to crisis to economic collapse. This explains why the ruling class, which has been so lyrical about the huge profits it is garnering, is at the same time so worried about future developments.
This latest phase in the development of capitalism has to be seen in the light of its evolution of more than a half century and the role of the U.S. in the global economy at the end of the Second World War. At that time this country held a predominant position in both science and technology. It controlled the fundamental levers of capitalist development in the West and had gained political and diplomatic predominance over Japan.
Over the years, however, the fortunes of U.S. monopoly capitalism began to change. From shortly after the Second World War until the early 1950s, the U.S. had accounted for 50% of gross world production (that is, of the global bourgeois economy), which gave it enormous political, diplomatic and military leverage. However, as capitalist Europe recovered and Washington began to become very deeply involved in the Viet Nam adventure, the U.S. share of the capitalist world's gross production sank to what is variously estimated at 25% to 30%. It somewhat recovered for a short time after the war, but has since been steadily shrinking, so that estimates today run between 20% and 25%.
While the U.S. share of the capitalist world's gross production has declined, its military aspect has continually increased. This has imparted a debilitating aspect to the nature of capitalist development in this period. The figures show that the military expansion of the U.S. has been contemporaneous with a contracting share of world capitalist production. This is an enormous factor in imparting economic instability and promoting military adventurism.
It is thus impossible to discuss the effects of the scientific-technological revolution solely in terms of a national phenomenon. In the following pages we examine the havoc wrought by this technological transformation on the labor movement and the oppressed people. However, it is the international implications which often prove of decisive significance, especially in terms of the relationship of military production to the world capitalist economy and the relations of U.S. imperialism to the oppressed peoples and socialist countries of the world. All this has to be borne in mind as we discuss strategy and tactics in the labor movement.
While it would be incorrect to try and draw an analogy between the fall of the ancient empires based on chattel slavery and the declining position today of U.S. imperialism, nevertheless certain similarities are worthy of comment. You just have to look at the rebellions going on in the Philippines, South Africa, Haiti, south Korea and elsewhere to be reminded of those ancient uprisings of the colonized peoples against the empire.
As in those days, there are loud voices in the ruling class today calling for strong leadership, for imposing order on the world. They were most vociferous during the Carter administration, which they viewed as well-nigh traitorous for not being able to prevent the downfall of the shah of Iran. But in truth, the Reaganites, who were behind so much of that ultra-rightwing agitation, found once they got in that they were forced by the rebellions to carry out pretty much the same policy as Carter. Reagan had to get rid of Duvalier of Haiti and to cut loose the dictator of the Philippines, Marcos.
For all the tough talk of the Reagan administration, the only place they dared carry out an open military intervention was against Grenada. That would have been an easy victory 150 years ago.
The cost of militarism is rising. The trend in imperialism today is that the cost of maintaining the empire is beginning to overwhelm the loot that is brought in. When imperialism was stronger it brought in many more profits than losses. This allowed for the development of a relatively aristocratic top layer of the working class, mostly white, who gained something from imperialist expansionism. But today it is becoming ever more costly to maintain such a far-flung empire against increasingly conscious and determined liberation struggles. It takes enormous expenditures not only on the most sophisticated weapons and on maneuvers involving huge numbers of troops but even on endless diplomatic and political efforts. All this must ultimately come out of the hides of the workers here.
Seen in another sense, the imperialist system is becoming too costly to be able to reproduce itself. This stands out when capitalism is compared to both ancient slavery and feudalism, societies that remained relatively stable for centuries. Under these systems, the surplus produced by the laboring classes went directly into consumption. Very little was used to expand the means of production, unlike the present economic system, where the driving force of production is to generate capital.
Under modern-day monopoly capitalism, with its enormous and costly military superstructure and its irreversible drive to revolutionize the means of production, the cost of production has become excessive. The capitalists must make an ever greater effort to unload these excessive costs on the working class; hence, high tech and low wages. Their anti-labor offensive is not the product of an aberration on the part of individual capitalists but comes from deep historical roots. It is a symptom showing that the system is economically out of date and bound to decline.
At present the anti-labor offensive of the capitalist class shows no signs of receding. But it is instructive to look back to a hundred years ago, when the struggle of the working class in the U.S. was remarkable for its militancy. The international working class of that period viewed the struggles of the U.S. workers as exemplary. The struggle of U.S. workers for the eight-hour day in 1886 led to the proclamation of May Day as an international working class holiday. That historic period of upsurge also saw the rise of the organization of Black labor.
However, it should be noted that it was preceded by a period of a severe anti-labor offensive unleashed by the capitalist class that had its origins in the capitalist crisis of 1873. Labor historian Mary Beard, in her A Short History of American Labor, described the period: "With the paralysis of industry employers began to reduce wages and these reductions were followed by prolonged and desperate strikes. Within seven years, between 1873 and 1880, wages in the textile districts were cut to almost one-half the former standard. Similar action was taken in other industries. Unemployment became so widespread that strikes to maintain wages were perilous; where they were attempted, lockouts usually followed. Blacklists and prosecutions intimidated labor leaders. . . ." 5 The number of effective national craft unions fell to less than a third, and membership in unions declined drastically.
Is this really different, except perhaps for form and severity, from the current attack on the labor movement, the oppressed people, women, gay men and lesbians and the homeless? That period led to a great resurgence. The devastating effects of monopoly capitalism's latest assault will, after trials and errors, inevitably give birth to an upsurge in the movement of the working class and oppressed peoples--and one which has incalculable potential for progressive and revolutionary working class solidarity.
References1. Marcy, Sam, "The Changed Character of the Working Class," Workers World (New York), Oct. 25, 1984.
2. Morehouse, Ward and David Dembo, "The Underbelly of the U.S. Economy: Joblessness and Pauperization of Work in America," a series of special reports prepared by the Council on International and Public Affairs (New York, 1984-85).
3. UAW Research Bulletin, May-June 1985 (Detroit).
4. See excerpts from report of U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, New York Times, Feb. 7, 1986, p. 1.
5. Beard, Mary, A Short History of American Labor, Arno Press (New York, 1969), pp. 80-81.
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