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Whatever Became of the Class Struggle? Whatever Became of the Class Struggle?
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2012-11-05 10:56:17
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The majority opinion about the state of civil societies of developed nations is that in the 20th century a reconciliation of sorts took place between capital and labor.  This reconciliation is not what Marx predicted, and, in fact it is not secure, even after the centuries of progress due to universal literacy and the growth of wealth in every developed nation.  A separate piece on the 20th century may be in order.

The process of economic development began in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe, in which every political entity was ruled by an elite virtually identical with the local aristocracy.  The reason for this was, primarily, the fact that land was the sole source of traditional wealth.  But, with the awakening of trade in the wake of the Age of Exploration begun in the 1420’s, worldwide commerce began to impinge upon the aristocratic monopoly of power.  Interestingly, the commercial classes were composed of tight knit families that formed alliances only with other commercial families.  Outsiders had no say in political affairs.  Therefore the financial class had no direct relation to modernity. 

The crucial factor in the generation of modernity is the notion of abstract individuality.  Abstract individuality also is the basis of all modern democracies.  So, one might expect that Marx would be correct in his prediction of the dissolution of classes.  But in this he was wrong, and that is one major reason for my assertion in an earlier essay that he was too optimistic.  The relation between local families and the control of political power in commercial centers has nothing to do with capitalism or with modernity.  One might as well be living in ancient Greece or Rome.  Frankly, there is no clear relation between legal equality and political democracy. 

Because of the caesura between political life and economic status, there was in the minds of people in early modernity no actual contradiction between legal rights and economic exploitation.  At the end of the process of development, which varied from nation to nation, there were two classes: the rich aristocracy and the rich merchant class, and that was all.  Capitalism came later, from the early decades of the 18th century.

The capitalist system of production changed the face of the globe.  Few imagine the truth of its origins, but the juxtaposition of the forces of the pelf accumulated during that course of centuries of  European Imperialism, combined with that of the wealth produced by commercialism seemed to Marx to be enough to set off the rise of Capitalism.  (In volume three of Capital he called this long formative period “primitive accumulation, “ but in this he was mistaken, as I showed in the first blog on this subject.)

There can be no question that capitalism is a relatively rational system of production, one that coordinates the division of labor and takes advantage of the expansion of the market already in place and growing, putting at the center the role of the entrepreneur (the coordinator) to organize production of goods in a more efficient way, reducing costs and increasing profits for the firm.  The only thing wrong with this arrangement was the contradiction between the absolute and total rights of private property on the one hand, and the lack of any rights for the actual producers of wealth, the workers.  This obvious case of rank exploitation is what caused the negative feelings of the two sections against one another.  Wealth unexampled for the one; poverty for the other; exile or prison for anyone who protested against this lopsided arrangement, with the state itself as the executor of the interests of private property.

In a matter of decades, the basic social setup of early Capitalism eliminated the aristocracy, which was already a superannuated group to be sure; and substituted the nascent capitalist class in its stead, with the nascent working class tailing behind the latter, demanding better pay and working conditions, and also espoused universal values.  This set of formations dominated economic life in the capitalist system from the beginning.  In the 19th century “The Social Question” dominated politics: the working class grew by leaps and bounds during this period, and in the end dwarfed the numbers of aristocrats and capitalists and their hangers-on. 

I intend here to supply two outstanding examples from American history to show the depths of irrationality that this set of social values entailed. 

The first is easily stated in short.  The USA was among the very last nations to confer legal status to labor unions.  From 1836, when unions began in the USA, until 1936, when the Labor Relations Act was passed by Congress, legalizing them and setting up mechanisms to maintain the rights of labor enumerated in the law, approximately 100,000 workers died in labor violence.  The vas majority of these casualties were committed my armed thugs employed by the owners of factories and other economic entities, but virtually none of the culprits were ever was ever accused, never mind accused of murder.  This should be enough to astonish anyone.  The conclusion cannot be evaded: the values of American society were wholly on the side of property.   (It does not take reminding that this was repeated, with less violence, in all the other capitalist nations.)

The second example is even more interesting.  It is not generally noticed that the American Civil War of 1861 through 1865 was generated by the existence of slavery in the Southern states, which had precipitated a crisis by the threat of extending slavery to the entire nation.

An explanation is needed to bring into the light the actual steps of this process.

The Southern Planter elites, that is to say, the masters of black slaves, had had a good run from the time of the Jackson administrations in the 1820s through the middle of 1830s, in securing new lands for their expansion.  By 1848, with the expansionist war with Mexico newly won, relying on the theory entitled “the labor theory of value” — yes, the very same theory of value that Marx had adopted from David Ricardo — in a ridiculously self-centered manner.  They reasoned that if labor is the source of all wealth, then they would be the greatest beneficiaries of it, since they paid their Black slaves nothing, and had all the proceeds of their labor for themselves.  Then they would command more wealth than any other group in the world, and notably more than the capitalist class of the Northern states, who had to pay their laborers a living wage (or what passed for a living wage.  Indeed, they had the support of many in the capitalist class in Great Britain, who relied already on the cotton production of the Southern “aristocracy,” who thought they had reason to believe that their ideas were more economically viable than the ideas of their adversaries.

With such wealth the planter class would sweep the world before them.  This reasoning justified the expansion into Mexico, and the success of that enterprise made them confident.  Yet there was a problem for them.  The problem consisted in the aims of the original revolution that had created the nation, and the values of the vast majority of the people of the North, the small farmer, whose multitudes had expanded westward in even greater numbers over the past three-quarters of a century than the numbers of slaves in the South.  

It was a clash of values, with the South upholding racism and the wealth of the relatively tiny class of planters against the original motive of the society, and the very great preponderance of voters over the rest of the nation who were against slavery. One of the motives of the small free farmers of the Northern states for opposing slavery was that they shared the idea of the Southern planters.  That is, they felt that if the Black slaves were put into direct competition with them, servile labor would defeat them, because the overhead incurred by the masters was almost nothing in comparison with the expenses by a farmer to raise his family and, in many cases, paying for the labor of his hired hands.  Thus they were very active in politics, knowing their own self-interest (which was perhaps exaggerated) and careful to vote for politicians who would not allow slavery to directly compete with free labor.  Most of the states in the North had long since passed laws prohibiting slavery on their territories.

This was the situation when the Dred Scott decision was rendered by the Supreme Court in 1857.  Scott had been a slave who ran away to the northern state of Wisconsin (???) and then had been recaptured by agents of his slave master.  He managed to bring a case in law that eventually was decided by the highest court in the land.  He argued that since he was residing in a state that said he was free, there was no basis for reimposing on him the disability of slavery.  The court decided that he was wrong, on the ground that Black people are innately inferior and may never have rights in a civil society.

Now the upshot of this was the civil war.  The reason why this is so is that the small farmer felt threatened for his livelihood, and made up his mind to prevent, by any means, the effects of this heinous ruling, which to the mind of the Jacksonian Chief Justice, Roger Taney, seemed perfectly obvious to be a fact. 

But the majority of the nation did not assent to it.  In 1858 there occurred the Lincoln – Douglas debates, wherein the Senate seat was being contested.  Lincoln proclaimed that a nation could not abide a situation of being half free and half slave.  The liberal traditions of the country and the interests of the majority of the nation were understood to be in the wrong factually, and the only way to right the situation was to somehow protect the rights of the majority, which could only be done by somehow facing up to the question of the status of the slaves in the midst of a free country.  Douglas was elected, but when the two figures vied for the presidency two years later, the situation had heated up all over the north, particularly in New York and Massachusetts.  Meanwhile the Southern Planter class realized at once that if the North resisted, they could preserve their position and privileges in their own society only by seceding from the Union.  They threatened to secede from the union if the massive man Abraham Lincoln were to succeed in the election.  The civil war erupted one month after he took office. 

And so it evolved.  Each party was partly wrong about the economic consequences of what they were about to do.  There was no turning back, and about a half million men out of a total population of less than 20 million died in the four-year-long conflict, causing bad feelings on both sides for generations.

 The long term effects upon the South can be seen most clearly in my opinion in the novels of William Faulkner, the greatest American novelist of the 20th century.

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Emanuel Paparella2012-11-05 15:46:10
Larry, this is an insightful commentary on the Marxian notion of class struggle. Unfortunately it has been trivialized and politicized by today's capitalists as a synonym for totalitarian Communism as quite a few of Mit Romney's ads will attest to.

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