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March 2003 • Vol 3, No. 3 •

Book Review

The Working Class Majority,
America’s Best Kept Secret

Reviewed by Bob Mattingly

The Working Class Majority, America’s Best Kept Secret
By Michael Zweig

ILR Press, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 2000

Why class is important to workers

Even as American workers’ living standards have been successfully attacked during the past three decades, the very concept of a working class has been “disappeared” from public discourse, says Michael Zweig, a professor of economics at the State University of New York. Moreover, that “disappearance” makes workers’ self-defense that much harder. “When the working class disappears into the middle class, workers lose a vital piece of their identity…they don’t know who they are anymore. To make matters worse, they also lose a sense of the enemy…. As the capitalist class disappears from view, the target of struggle disappears too.”

Of course, the boss elite really hasn’t gone anywhere, but the semantic slight-of-hand aided by academia and the media makes possible and easier the substitution of other targets for workers’ resentment over their conditions. “As the capitalists disappeared,[?] we saw the poor, the immigrant, the foreigner, the government and even workers themselves and their unions proposed as targets for our anger.” Here Zweig fails to note that very often it makes very good sense for workers to target those who are the capitalists’ accomplices, the government in the first place, but also those union bureaucrats, sometimes called “the labor lieutenants of capital.” But Zweig’s failure is no oversight, since he sees government and perhaps the present-day labor officialdom as part of his answer to U.S. workers’ troubles.

This book has many strong points, but unfortunately, one major, critical weakness. Though the author subjects capitalism to devastating criticism, in the end he advocates, not the abolition of capitalism, but its reform. Capitalism, says the author, should be subjected to safeguards that curb dog-eat-dog competition and protect the interests of workers, whose labor, the author also says, is the source of the capitalists’ wealth. But once workers are mobilized to the considerable degree it would take to truly limit the bosses’ “excesses,” why should they continue to allow the capitalists to rip off that part of the workers’ earnings that the capitalists label “profit,” and to periodically wage imperial wars of ghastly devastation? The author doesn’t say.

Perhaps the author’s unwillingness to advocate the replacement of capitalism is rooted in the degeneration of the Russian workers 1917 revolution, an event that has crippled workers’ political movements, as much, if not more than anything else. Whatever the reason the author advocates reform rather than revolution, the rest of the terrifying history of the 20th Century should spur humankind to eradicate the profit system, root and branch, before the profiteers finish off the evolutionary lineage of Homo Sapiens.

That aside, the author successfully and usefully dismantles the pervasive myth that the U.S. is largely a middle class nation, layered between a thin stratum of rich and a sizable “underclass” of social misfits and outcasts. In actuality, says the author, the main social division turns on who wields the power and authority over the workplace, the capitalist class, and the object of that power, the nation’s majority, the working class. There is a middle class, of course, which is about 30 percent of the populace; it’s half the size of the working class and made up of people such as professionals, small business owners, managers and supervisors with “middling authority” over others at work.

“Class has its foundation in power relations at work” but those relations also pervade society at large, taking the form of “cultural and political power.” That pervasive power has allowed the corporate class to carry out its successful assault on workers’ living standards, forcing more and more families into the job market in an attempt to keep up. As Zweig points out using familiar statistics the hallmark of that assault is the growing maldistribution of income and. more importantly, the lopsided distribution of wealth. Though the recent decades have seen production and workers’ productivity reach all-time levels, “real wages for working class people fell, and both income and wealth shifted away from workers to capitalists.” Zweig doesn’t mention it, but if today’s workers received the same proportion of the national domestic product as their fathers did, their yearly incomes would be hundred’s of billions of dollars greater than they currently are. The obvious lesson that Zweig draws is that today, “A rising tide does not lift all boats in a world with such differences in class power.”

The author correctly notes that the decline in workers’ living standards and working conditions coincided with the decline of union numerical strength. “Over a third of the labor force belonged to unions in 1955, the high point; by 1977 the percentage of had dropped to 14.1 percent.” Unfortunately, the percentage of organized workers continues to shrink.

However, there’s a third factor involved, one that Zweig leaves out. In 1999, the Labor Department counted only 19 strikes involving a thousand or more workers. In fact, in 1982, for the first time since the end of WWII the number of strikes fell to just 96 and has never been as high again. In 1999, the Labor Department counted only 17 major work stoppages. Last year there were 29 such strikes, hardly a turnaround, given the provocations. Zweig fails to explain why the American labor leadership has failed to develop an anti-capitalist outlook and anti-capitalist action program. Nor does he think it important to relate the profound demobilization of labor’s ranks to the profound bureaucratization of the labor officialdom, and thus to the steep decline in union membership.

Understanding class

Zweig rightly believes that an understanding of the relations of social classes is necessary “to get to the bottom of what’s ailing us.” That’s so workers can “build the social movements needed to make a life better for working people. Because class is a question of power, understanding class can add to the power of working people.” Agreeing with what many analysts have said for many years (including Karl Marx), Zweig says that class, is not about lifestyle, status, or even income. Class is about the ownership of society’s productive edifice and the multifaceted power over others that such ownership commands. Put another way, class is about not having the “power to determine and control the processes that go on in the factory and the bank, and beyond that, power in the larger society, especially political power.”

The emerging worldwide anti-capitalist movements are on the increase in reaction to the global depredations of so-called neo-liberalism and imperialism. Actions by the youthful anti-corporate movements of environmentalists, social justice activists, students and workers in Spain and Italy, as well as the recent events in Argentina, should not merely encourage anti-capitalist academicians, such as Zweig; but inspire them to back up their anti-capitalism with a thoroughgoing program for the future.

Instead, Zweig only sees the possibility of putting limits on “raw capitalism,” of putting in place principles “to smooth out the burdens of the marketplace,” or advising workers that their “task is to make competition constructive and to exercise their power to benefit from their own productivity.” But, if workers are to someday take wages and working conditions out of competition, as Zweig advocates, then wage slavery itself must be relegated to the dustbin of history, right? 





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