Economy & Business

The AFL-CIO’s Daft Marxism

Freight trucks on the road in Detroit, Mich. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)
The union enjoins workers to seize the means of production — of which they already own a great deal.

The AFL-CIO, whose constituents once expended some effort expelling the Communists from their ranks, apparently has decided on another course and is now using its social-media accounts to distribute Marxist propaganda. This comes hot on the heels of the same organization suggesting guillotines as the solution to the nation’s economic troubles.

There are many objections to this line of thinking, beginning with the 100 million people the champions of this philosophy murdered in the 20th century and the horrors they are inflicting today on the people of Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. Our friends on the left like to lecture conservatives about the occasional outburst of violent rhetoric in our midst, and they are not entirely wrong to do so. But what the AFL-CIO refers to here is not violent rhetoric but actual violence in the form of mass murder.

Beyond the niggling details of gulags, the Holodomor, anti-Semitic purges, etc., there’s also the matter of hilarious illiteracy.

The daft little propaganda video the union is circulating features a very confident young man identified as “Dan Whelan: Marxist, roofer,” who is here to explain that the existence of the middle class is a great fiction perpetrated on the feckless victims of American capitalism in order to blind them to the truth of relations between labor and capital as understood in Marxist orthodoxy.

The working class, Whelan explains, consists of all those who “sell their time and skills to members of the ownership class,” irrespective of the kind of work they do. Under this analysis, “working class” encompasses roofers, farmworkers, factory labor, and industrial personnel — and also most of the investment bankers down at Goldman Sachs, and the lawyers around the corner from them, and the AI scientists at Google, who also sell their time and skills to the owners of companies.

A definition of “working class” that lumps in pickers of peaches with writers of algorithms is functionally useless and intellectually sterile — except in the context of a narrow ideological framework such as Marxism. Marxism is predicated upon certain notions of class interest, and it is difficult to imagine, say, M&A lawyers having a great deal in common as a matter of class interest with over-the-road truckers.

Or maybe the truckers should be excluded from the working class. Many of them are owner-operators, and as owners of capital are excluded from the working class in this analysis. So, truckers are the capitalist class, and neurosurgeons are the working class.

What about teachers?

The middle class, which is said not to exist, turns out to own a great deal of capital. Among the nation’s largest institutional investors — owners of capital — are organizations such as CalPERS and CalSTRS, which invest on behalf of teachers and other government employees in California. Investment funds representing public employees, unions, and the like are very large holders of capital. Other large institutional investors include funds such as Vanguard Asset Management (second only to BlackRock in assets) through which a great many ordinary people with ordinary jobs invest in publicly traded companies.

The AFL-CIO, repeating a slogan under which millions of people have been murdered, advises that working people “seize the means of production.” But they already own a considerable amount, and there is nothing stopping them from buying more. You need the AFL-CIO’s permission to work in a closed union shop, but there is no similar gatekeeper blocking anybody’s access to the stock market. They’ll sell shares to anybody who wants them. Capitalists do not discriminate. Unions do. Ask around in Philadelphia.

When Barack Obama was president, certain Republicans spoke of the “carnage” of American life, while Democrats sang the praises of a rising stock market; now that Donald Trump is president, the roles have been roughly reversed. (Let us set aside, for the moment, the risible and primitive superstition that the performance of the economy is a quasi-divine judgment on the president and his performance in office.) The American middle class is right out there, sited prettily easily in the suburbs of Houston or Boston, in the aisles of the Home Depot or Whole Foods, at the bank, watching Game of Thrones. The middle class has its ups and downs, its triumphs and disappointments, comforts and anxieties — that’s what being in the middle is all about.

The Left has in recent years shifted its emphasis from the troubles of the poor to the troubles of the middle class, for obvious reasons: The Democratic party has become a middle-class party, one that is dominated by college-educated white professionals in relatively affluent urban centers rather than the “farmer-labor” party of a generation ago, the agricultural communities having gone solidly Republican, a fact that would have mystified members of my grandfather’s generation, when the socioeconomic poles of the parties were roughly reversed. (The Republican march through the South, notably, began in the relatively affluent and educated suburbs; the Democrats are now doing something very similar in places such as Texas and Georgia.) For this reason, the Democrats have a heavy investment in convincing the middle class that it is miserable, that it is the victim of Republicans, that it is a victim of Wall Street (which is politically dominated by Democrats, but never mind), or — in the silly Marxist analysis — that it does not exist, that it has had the wool of false consciousness pulled over its eyes.

If the plight of the middle class under capitalism seems to you unbearable, you should consider what has happened to the working class under Marxism, if only for comparison. “Build the Wall!” was a socialist program long before it was Trump’s.

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