“Class Struggle”

Column No. 214

The classic Marxist concept of class struggle elucidates the millennia-long battle between the owners and controllers of the means of production, whether that be agricultural, trading, manufacturing, or finance, and everyone else.

Under the capitalism of Marx’ time, the bulk of “everyone else” consisted of the manufacturing working class and related occupations, such as the miners and the railroad workers. In our era things have gotten rather more complex. 

First of all, in the developed capitalist countries fewer and fewer people are engaged directly in manufacturing, more and more in “white collar” positions directly and indirectly supporting the manufacturing sector, and in small business. Second of all, while there is a definable owning/controlling class, it is much less publicly apparent than it used to be and many non-owner/controllers have the appearance of “ownership’ and an interest in it through the securities markets. Third of all, in the United States to the greatest extent, but in most of the other developed countries to some extent as well, the owners/controllers have created a very effective propaganda machine designed to suppress traditional working class consciousness. For example, when President-elect Obama refers to the “middle class” what he is really talking about is what used to be called the “working class,” but the capitalist media have made sure that that term is passé. 

Fourth of all, in the United States since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and its successor state totally mis-named “right-to-work” laws and in the United Kingdom more recently since Margaret Thatcher (but less in most of the other capitalist countries) the trade union movement under which so many workers developed class consciousness has been very actively and very successfully repressed. Finally, in the United States the owner/controllers and their media have run a very successful propaganda campaign to get the term “class warfare” to be used to refer to the (relatively weak) efforts by the Democratic Party to mitigate some of the worst effects of the owning/controlling class’ ownership and control, like the ever-rising and very rapidly-rising separation in both income and wealth between the top of the o/c heap and everyone else. The result of all this is that in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the other developed countries, there is very little of the old-fashioned class consciousness on the part of the workers, whether blue or white collar. This does not mean that there is not class struggle going on. It does mean that most of the non-owners/controllers of the means of production are not aware that they are in one.

The human species is the only one that cannot survive without converting elements that it finds in its environment into other things. It began with simple food conversion, and producing clothing and shelter. It has obviously gotten a lot more complex over time. Thus it is that control over the means of production, from growing food in amounts to feed more than oneself and one’s family to converting iron ore and coke into steel and the products that can be made from it, is central to controlling human life. Central also is the ownership and control of the natural resources that literally fuel our modern economies. Karl Marx provided us with the understanding of the basic class divisions, in relation to the means of production.

It was V.I. Lenin who provided the understanding of the true relationship between the owning/controlling class and the government in any modern nation. Under capitalism the owners/controllers attempt, usually with great success, to create the illusion that the State is somehow an independent body, up for grabs. In fact, and one can observe this happening over and over again, the State serves the interests of the owning/controlling class, which in fact own it too. (In the U.S., with for the most part private financing of elections, they literally buy it.) Thus the greatest achievement of the last great reformer US President, Franklin Roosevelt, was to save US capitalism operating with a Constitutional government (Marxists call the form “bourgeois democracy”) from becoming either a fascist state or becoming, horror of horrors, possibly subject to at least an attempt at socialist revolution. 

Barack Obama is in exactly the same position as FDR was, although given the depredations on our nation of the particular sector of the US owning/controlling class represented by what I call the “Georgites” over the past eight years, his task is rather harder than that of FDR. But he no more represents the interests of the true non-owning/controlling class (whatever label one might give them) than did FDR. But he is representative of one actor in the current class struggle in the United States. It’s just that that active, conscious-as-between-its-antagonists, class struggle is not of the traditional kind. It is occurring within the owning/controlling class, not between it and everyone else. 

There are certainly overlaps in both interests and memberships, but what one can now discern with a fair degree of confidence is that the US owning/controlling class has split into two fairly well-defined groups. They happen to have seriously competing interests in both the economy and government policy, in both the domestic realm and the foreign one. 

In one corner are the extractive industry (petroleum, natural gas, coal, and minerals), the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, and certain elements of the “health care” industry (particularly in the pharmaceutical and insurance ends of it). In the other corner is what is left of the US manufacturing sector, the service and communication industries, the public utilities, the growing “green energy” sector, the entertainment industry, the news media complex, and major elements of the financial sector (although some of them are on the other side). It is clear that Pres.-elect Obama represents this latter class-sector. For decades they had done very well under “bourgeois democracy.” The Georgites have launched a major assault on it in many sectors over the past eight years, serving the interests of their controllers, with, however, the results that readers of these pages know all too well. The other grouping, shall we for the sake of moving the argument along call them the “Constitutionalist owner/controllers,” wanted it back. And to spearhead that drive, they have put Sen. Obama in the Presidency.

Obama and his people are very smart and appear to be very well organized. They have a quite monumental task in front of them, however, for capitalism has never faced a world-wide crisis of the sort it is now facing. But the Georgites, for all their apparent failures, are not going away. In fact, while most observers rank George Bush as the worst President the US has ever had, in terms of his record of achievement of his true goals, mostly never openly stated, he is in my view the most successful President the US has ever had. I have written on that topic on these pages and plan to return to it in a couple of months. He has definitely advanced the interests of the class sector he represents. In fact, it is no coincidence that Bush made so many extractive-industry friendly rulings since the election. He is their boy.

Obama and the class sector he represents represent a major threat to them. With green energy increasing oil and coal consumption will gradually decline, and along with a decline in both their influence and their profits. With a decline in the shoot-first, maybe negotiate afterwards foreign policy, the production of military hardware, especially the high-tech, high profit type, declines, along with their profits. And kind of national health insurance system that can control costs to even some extent ins going to reduce the profits of both the pharmaceutical and the “health” insurance industries. And so on and so forth. 

The Georgites may be somewhat conflicted because of the immediate impact of the Recession/Depression on their profits. But in the long run, they want to get back into power. Even though the Team Obama has a monster challenge and may well not succeed, they just might. And the Georgites cannot take that chance. The Georgites own and control the Republican Party. While there will be some sharp battles within it over tactics, their class interest remains the same. So, trying oh-so-cleverly to hide their true intent behind various kinds of rhetoric, they will do everything they can to make sure that Team Obama does not succeed.

Of course, the failure of Obama to rescue traditional American capitalism would mean a rapid rush to squalor for many Americans. And that might mean the outbreak of anything from union organizing, to civil disobedience, to outright violence of the type that caused the Bush Regime to recently ready Army units for domestic duty and Treasury Sec. Paulson to openly refer to the possibility that it might be necessary to use them. Fascism, anyone? Well, Cheney, who directly represented the extractive industries in government, has done his best to lay the governmental groundwork for it. Oh yes, there is a class struggle going on. While capitalism is not at stake in the U.S., just what the form of government that the owners/controllers will use to maintain their power very much is. That’s the class struggle that is going on in front of our very eyes.