Capitalism is again in the cross hairs of global climate activists. To save the earth, declare young activists, we need earth-shaking change going beyond the narrow constraints of a system that unapologetically prioritizes profits over people.
The clock is ticking with scientists warning that substantial changes must be made in this century or our environment will suffer irreparable damage. As a result, more and more people are becoming less and less patient with an unresponsive power structure saturated with dollars.
For example, popular author and social activist Naomi Klein, doesn’t mince words in her most recent best seller that unabashedly identifies the problem upfront in her title – Capitalism vs. the Climate.
Such a frank discussion of how private ownership of our natural resources poisons the earth below and pollutes the atmosphere above needs to shift to economics as well.
In this realm, one of the most renown figures of modern economics, John Maynard Keynes, describes best the pitfalls of our privately-owned economy by colorfully putting it this way: “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
To get out from under this wickedness, I argue that we need to go beyond Keynesian reforms that normally propose massive government stimulus creating more jobs.
Of course, any and all reforms that offer even temporary relief should be fully supported.
But, Keynesian promotion of massive government spending does not address the biggest problem of our times and something that Karl Marx was most concerned – private ownership of production and surpluses created by the total workforce and the ultimate control by capitalists over how and to whom the subsequent profits are distributed.
In Marxist lingo, this imbalanced equation is the contradiction between private ownership by the few vs. social production by the millions.
Putting aside theory, Keynesian proposals also, in practice, put us on the defensive, continually asking relief from a government that arguably represents big business and banks more than the average person.
Similarly, on the defensive again, attempts to raise taxes of the super rich occurs after value [money] has already been created during the normal day to day production of goods and services and after it has already been deposited into one of their lush offshore bank accounts.
More fundamental reforms, Marxists advocate, would divert the nation’s wealth toward working people and social needs even as it’s produced, before the rich appropriate it for themselves.
It can be done, as we will discuss later in this article.
Three Great Reforms Gone Awry
But first, to help explain the limitations and fragility of even the most ambitious reforms in our country that did not extend into reducing capitalist control of the social product, let’s examine three historic legislative acts of the 1930s.
It’s hard to find other laws that have so significantly influenced our economic lives, yet, two utterly failed to achieve their promise and one is continually being undermined.
They were the Wagner Act legalizing the right to organize unions, the Fair Labor Standards Act establishing the 40-hour work week and the enormously significant Social Security Act.
Each of the three monumental reforms of the Great Depression were, over time, corrupted and devalued. Broad social movements advocating “Get Wise-Organize” and demanding “Less Hours, More Pay–Fight for Jobs with a Shorter Work Day!” demobilized and the power structure tweaked and twisted their original purpose.
Today, the Wagner Act has been amended several times by Congress to distort and delay union representation by imposing on grievance settlements and contract negotiations an impossibly complex and paralyzing legal maze. At the same time, Courts have obstructed organizing by giving employers too much leeway to threaten employees.
The 40-hour week is also a mockery of itself. Left unchanged for over 75 years, it is still drudgery to work a full week, yet, it does not even necessarily guarantee a living wage as we know from millions of fast-food and Wal-Mart workers.
Worse yet for part time and the underemployed. And, it simply is not rationally necessary.
As Eric Rauch from MIT noted in his heralded 2000 paper Productivity and the Workweek, “An average worker needs to work a mere 11 hours per week to produce as much as one working 40 hours in 1950.”
This data is 14 years old. Productivity has increased even more since.
Anticipating these productivity gains in 1930, Keynes, himself, predicted technological advancements would mean everyone eventually working just 15 hours a week.
But, alas, this did not happen. Nor could it happen.
Under capitalism, Keynes knew better than most, outcomes are not decided by logic but by profit. Therefore, into whose pockets did proceeds from higher productivity go if not to working people? It’s a rhetorical question.
And, when it comes to the third great benefit of the 1930s, social security, there are continual threats to end guaranteed monthly payments by outsourcing retirement funds to the stock market, threats to stop annual inflation adjustments and threats to increase the age of eligibility.
These three most profound legislative acts are, therefore, prime examples of why changes are insufficient and subject to erosion as long as they do not establish social and economic standards actually overruling the natural tendency of capitalists, individually and through the government and courts, to emphasize personal profits over people’s needs.
We expect no less from the super rich, so we must restrict their ability to selfishly decide how to distribute the benefits and values of production that are, after all, created collectively by working people.
Without these restraints on their unilateral discretion, we have no hope of reshaping our economy so that it works for the majority and to do otherwise, history informs us, invites catastrophe.
Old Solutions Left Unfinished
The following are a list of proposals that actually assign society’s surplus values from normal production of goods and services and from increased productivity for specific purposes benefiting the majority before being appropriated by the wealthy for their own personal use.
All have been championed by militant labor, populist and socialist movements of old but only the minimum wage is currently part of a major national campaign. Nonetheless, they are all worth serious consideration.
1. We demand more leisure time and national legislation that finally amends the Fair Labor Standards Act by mandating a work week of 32 hours or less with no loss in pay and, henceforth, lowering further the work week with no loss in pay as productivity increases. This 20% reduction in the work week would mean immediate job openings for millions of unemployed and underemployed. These ideas were regularly raised during the Great Depression and during the rise of the CIO union federation.
2. We demand a living wage and national legislation establishing a minimum wage of $15 an hour for all workers with annual cost of living adjustments protecting against wages sliding backwards. A San Francisco proposition scheduled for the November ballot states this exactly
3. We demand an end to business secrets and swindles and national legislation requiring expert public examination of account books of corporations who demand concessions from employees or tax breaks from the government. The same for banks who receive government bailouts while bankrupting debtors and homeowners. This is an unfinished campaign of openness abruptly cut short after the Occupy Wall Street protests subsided.
4. We demand full employment and national legislation requiring permanent public works programs with community input and expert infrastructure analysis performed regularly. This would include planning vast environmental conversion projects. Versions of this idea are supported by liberals and progressives but it still largely sits on the sidelines, especially the permanency angle.
5. We demand quarterly Cost of Living Wage Adjustments and national legislation stating that wages would not suffer due to manipulative monetary policies. Once very popular, this idea lost steam in the 1980s during the concessionary attacks on labor.
Impossible for Whom?
An immediate reaction might be that these reforms are unrealistic and impossible under our current system. Not true, some of these proposals such as the lower work week have already been enacted in other industrialized countries and several U.S. labor agreements contained cost of living wage adjustments through the 1970s.
But this avoids the real question – are the proposals reasonable, do they benefit the overwhelming majority of people and are they, as a result, worth building a movement?
Each of us must rethink our loyalty to a system controlled by the few uber-rich families who currently dominate everything, who so dramatically limit our choices and who make us consider impractical and utopian legitimate reforms designed to reshape and redesign our economy and, in fact, our whole world, to make it work better for us.
Until the majority decides on the big picture of eliminating private ownership and control of our planet and to put Marx’s socialist vision of a new world community back on the table, it’s a start.
Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He doesn’t like capitalism. He can be reached at email@example.com