By Rick Bookstaber
I spoke recently at a conference where I was followed to the podium by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who, among other things, railed against the instigation by the left of “class warfare”, pointing out that doing so is little more than singling out an unpopular minority group, (i.e., the rich), for higher taxation. (Though the minority group that happens to have the largest share of the item that is the war’s objective). Tucker said we are seeing an ever shrinking number of people paying an ever greater portion of the taxes. (Though they also are the ever shrinking number of people acquiring an ever greater portion of the wealth).
There is little that matches the artfulness in waving off criticism of the widening income gap as “class warfare”. And there is little that matches the gullibility of those who follow along. There seems to be agreement all around that action to change the situation, for the poor to improve their lot at the expense of the rich, is an affront to civil society. I am not picking sides in this, but I believe such a "war" can be justified, and indeed ultimately is inevitable.
It is hard to discuss class warfare without referring back to the industrial revolution. Then class warfare centered on the length of the working day. A tightly defined working day only appeared with the advent of the industrial revolution. Before then laborers worked when they needed money, and then quit for a time once they fulfilled their needs. But regimentation and a dependable workforce became necessary once there was machinery to run and capital invested, and so with industrialization came an enforced workday. So it is not surprising that Marx stated the central battle of class warfare at the time in terms of the working day:
The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand…the laborer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class. – Marx, Das Kapital
Marx begins with an acknowledgement of the perception of rights on the part of both the capitalist and the laborer, but then argues that the question of the length of the working day cannot be solved by an appeal to rights, but only through class struggle, wherein “force” decides between “equal rights”. (Force can mean physical force, but can also mean the force of the political process).
The central point is that there is no way that this question of the working day or any number of other social questions, though posed as rights by the groups in conflict, can be resolved without being reformulated in terms of class struggle or class warfare. Unlike civil rights – the rights which our society regards as inalienable – it is difficult to do much more than simply take sides when it comes to economic rights, because what we call economic rights are really nothing more than the bargaining in an exchange between those providing labor and those providing capital, those creating jobs and those taking the jobs, or whatever. There is class warfare because the social and economic pie has to be split, and there is no objective way to do so. The war can be active or passive, the sides can have a truce, one side can temporarily be resigned to its lot or be held in check through force, but the conflict never ends. A change in generations or in social consciousness, and things will flare up again. There are some areas of fairness in the civil sphere – freedom from slavery, torture and piracy – but what are the rights inherent for a particular term of exchange between the parties in a trade?
Given this, we are left in a quandary because we don’t know what to make of class warfare. And we don’t know because we are not trained to make anything of it. It is not part of any self-respecting course of economic study. The introduction of class warfare marks a radical departure from the tenets of contemporary economics because as far as economics goes, the terms “class”, “warfare”, and “struggle” are, well, radicalized. Yet there has been an epic, historical struggle over the length of the working day writ large, extending to issues like retirement, the definition of the time worked, and the share of economic rents, and this is the struggle that is still with us. Clearly fundamental to our economic history and our capitalist system, this is ignored in our economic studies.
The time spent working and the share of that labor that accrued to the capitalists during the emergence of the industrial revolution is akin to the taxes and redistributions from the entitlement programs and government subsidies that are in the cross hairs today. Indeed, the timeline extends back even further. The benefits that we call entitlements are similar in our more advanced society to the rights of subsistence for the serfs during Feudal times – rights which were implicit in the social contract between lord and serf, and which were broken at the peril of revolt. The social contract between the lord and serf, as with any contract, had obligations on both sides. The serfs paid a portion of their production and provided service to the lords. The lords organized the serfs to defend against invasion, enforced a rule of law, and assured the serfs, as much as possible in that age, of subsistence. Is this so different from social contracts of today?
Even admitting to the term “class warfare” concedes a lot. To warn against class warfare only makes sense if there are classes, and more than that, if there might be a reason to be answered for one of the classes to do battle. (For otherwise there is the simpler course of pointing out that no differences exist). There is only so much to go around, and the efforts of one group or the other to assert a claim to a larger share can be called class warfare. It can be a war waged through changes in the taxes, in a restructuring of incentives and pay scales, an increase in the benefits given to the poor, or revolt. The first three are legitimate means in our society, and it is really taking a good joke too far to suggest it is damaging to the body politic for members of society to look at the differences in income and take action to redistribute in their direction.
The views expressed in this post are strictly my personal views.