For ever so long, workers have been told that this capitalist system we live under works to our benefit. Sure, the bosses get more than we do, but it’s all for the good of everyone and there couldn’t be any production without their expertise — and capital.
There are several different arguments here that need to be roundly refuted. One is that the capitalists have some particular expertise necessary for the production of goods and services.
The financial disaster of 2008 and the ensuing disaster for the working class showed once again that whatever skills — legal or illegal — the bosses have for making themselves rich, they are not the skills needed to run a healthy economy — one that addresses the needs of the people as its primary goal.
Sure, they were good at figuring out how to break up mortgages into little pieces and sell them on the financial markets. Or rather, the financial advisers they hired were good at it. But actually creating homes for people to live in? The capitalists’ financial skills have, in fact, wound up putting millions of people out on the street while what once were their homes — mortgaged, of course — often go to ruin.
In this period, the wages of those workers lucky enough to have jobs have either stagnated or declined. But after a few trillion dollars worth of government bailouts, the bosses’ capital is once again making the very rich even richer.
How much richer?
Study confirms income gap
grows still wider
More than half the income earned in 2012 went to just 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to a new study by economist Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley called “Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2012 preliminary estimates).” Putting it another way, the wealthier 10 percent each pulled in about 10 times the income of those in the other 90 percent.
But that’s only half the story. The much smaller 1 percent took in more than 20 percent of the country’s total earnings, one of the highest levels on record since 1913. This means the wealthy 1 percent each raked in 25 times what the other 99 percent got.
And even that’s not the whole story, because while earnings of the 99 percent, on average, have been flat since 2008, the incomes of the very, very richest — the 0.01 percent — have shot up by a third.
Remember, we’re just talking about income here. The assets of the very, very rich — which accumulate over decades, even generations, and include mansions, expensive art, private planes and trophy cars, etc., in addition to the billions in capital they invest to make even more money — are monumental compared to what an average worker might own. Which is pretty close to zero.
In fact, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, the ratio of household debt to disposable income (what you have left after taxes are taken out) in the U.S. had reached its highest point ever. It was 128 percent, meaning workers owed much more than they earned and were on a treadmill of debt payments that could go on forever. What happened was that, as the economy tanked, millions of them lost what they thought they owned as the banks and financiers foreclosed on their mortgages, their cars, etc.
The picture couldn’t be clearer. Capitalism in the U.S. — and much of the rest of the world — is quite efficient at making the very, very rich richer, but it fails miserably when it comes to meeting people’s needs for a stable existence.
Is this the result of false policies or is it built into the system itself? If such a thing as a feeling, caring capitalist came along, would he/she be able to change the system?
One who tried to reform
At one time, a few such people existed. One was the 29-year-old manufacturer Robert Owen, who lived in the early 19th century and directed a large cotton mill in New Lanark, Scotland, at a time when industrial workers’ lives were atrocious. Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, gave Owen his due in the book “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.”
Engels described how, under Owen’s leadership, the factory became a model colony. Workers who had become terribly demoralized by poverty and long hours were able to stabilize their lives and raise healthy families.
This model factory had a 10-and-a-half-hour workday when all the others demanded 13 and 14 hours. It had the first preschools, where children as young as 2 were cared for instead of being left on their own while their parents worked. When there was a crisis of overproduction in textiles, which lasted for four months, the workers got their full wages anyway.
But Owen himself realized that even this great success, which showed that humane conditions could be instituted and the factory still turn a sizable profit for the owners, would not change the industry. The great wealth created by workers using the new manufacturing technology was still the private property of the owners.
Engels said Owen came to realize that “the newly-created gigantic productive forces, hitherto used only to enrich individuals and to enslave the masses, offered to Owen the foundations for a reconstruction of society; they were destined, as the common property of all, to be worked for the common good of all.”
As soon as Owen, who had been lionized in “society” as a great philanthropist, came forward with this communist view, he was attacked on all sides. He eventually decided that the only way for society to move forward was through the struggle of the workers themselves.
Owen gave up his position in manufacturing and spent the rest of his life struggling on the side of the workers. Because of this, he was elected president of the first congress of the English trade unions, where they united into a single great association in order to better fight the bosses.
Capitalism won’t reform from within
Today, capitalist “reformers” set up foundations and make pretty speeches, but would any of them give up their fortunes in order to fight for the rights of the workers?
Today, the world is facing the largest “natural disaster” in history: global warming. Industry is responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But not one capitalist corporation is willing to give up its profits, not even to save the world. Instead, they have set up new markets to trade — and make money on — credits to pollute.
And we’re supposed to believe that they’ll reform when it comes to the growing poverty of the workers. But what else can you expect from a class that makes the biggest profits out of the machinery of war and even from prisons where millions of workers, a majority of them people of color and immigrants, are crammed together or held in solitary confinement, basically for being poor and unable to afford a lawyer?
United in struggle, the organized power of the working class — all genders, all nationalities, all backgrounds, employed or jobless, documented or undocumented, in or fighting to get unions, together with the oppressed communities — is the only tried-and-true way to reverse the further degradation of wages and working conditions.
Such a struggle also holds within it the potential to rebuild the movement to rid the world of this archaic, cruel and destructive system of capitalism once and for all.