The capitalist economic system is an edifice of exploitation built on several pillars. Two of the most important ones are the expropriation of surplus value and the reproduction of workers’ labor power.
Just to recap: human labor has value, but workers aren’t paid for the full value of the work we do. We get only a fraction of the value we add to producing a commodity (e.g., a car) or providing a service (e.g., cleaning up in a hospital). The rest of it goes to the bosses when they sell what we’ve created. All that unpaid labor — the surplus value — is the source of profits for the capitalists.
Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, capitalism’s preferred workforce would be actual slaves. Instead, though, we have wage slavery. The only reason we’re paid anything is to ensure that our labor power can be reproduced. The bosses want us back the next day to create more surplus value. They strive to pay the minimum required to keep us from starving or dying from the elements. A penny more is almost always something we struggled for and wrested from their hands — because they feared what we might do next.
This is the context for understanding the Wall Street Journal’s editorial of last Friday, October 8, titled “Where Did All the Workers Go?” It comes on the heels of the U.S. Labor Department’s report on jobs in August, which had numbers well below what economists had forecast and that showed a huge slide from the jobs added in June and July. It is a screed against even the most minimal adjustment in that equation for reproducing labor power, and seeks to throw blame not on capitalism itself but on one perspective within capitalism, which it should be noted — despite its immutable laws — is not monolithic when it comes to thinking through how to function from day to day. And so, the editorial’s subtitle: “Bidenomics has led to a labor shortage that is hurting the economy.”
“Bidenomics,” though, is just a bogeyman.
Sometimes, particularly in times of crisis or when a crisis looms, capitalists disagree about what to do. They argue about monetary policy — a central bank’s control of expanding or contracting how much money is available in the economy and how any new money ought to be infused to keep the economy running without getting too “hot” or too “cold,” with a good balance between spending and borrowing. The main tool is interest rates, but it can also involve injecting cash directly into banks and other parts of the economic infrastructure.
The capitalists also argue about fiscal policy — which is how government spending and taxation are used to address problems such as growth. In times of profound crisis, capitalist governments might spend a lot of money (and remember, the “government’s money” is actually ours; the government has no money of its own) to keep things from getting worse. This is the basis of Keynesian economics and the sorts of “New Deal”-like stimulus interventions we saw during the pandemic.
It’s all meant to keep the capitalist system from collapsing. Sometimes, like during the Great Depression, the threat to the system is a revolutionary one, and some of the capitalists have to be dragged kicking and screaming to a perspective that some short-term spending that reduces their rates of profit and exploitation might be a better alternative to the guillotine.
So, let’s dispense with the notion that “Bidenomics” is anything other than an approach to saving capitalism from the very seeds of its own destruction that Marx and Engels wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, it carries as part of its DNA.
With that background, what is the Wall Street Journal editorial really arguing? The general thesis is this: “The White House and Fed have deployed the Keynesian policy mix of government spending and easy monetary policy to boost demand. Meanwhile, they’ve squeezed the supply side with incentives not to work, restrictive mandates, and the promise of more regulation and higher taxes.”
This, the journal argues, is what explains the lack of job growth in the report. Ignoring that the spending began with the Trump administration, the Journal writes, “Democrats have … made quitting an easier economic option.”
This is a widespread argument among the many bourgeois economists who work tirelessly to blame the phenomenon of workers refusing to go back to their jobs on the workers themselves. They never blame the capitalist system itself; instead, they float ridiculous notions about steps the capitalists take to keep the system afloat — like the idea that these desperate measures create lives of leisure for workers in hyper-exploitative sectors of the economy, especially services.
Does anyone actually believe workers are staying home from jobs that pay them only enough ( and often too little) to reproduce their labor power because of leisure opportunities? That their refusal to put their lives at risk by going into unsafe workplaces is about not being motivated to work and thus bring home even a pittance to help feed themselves and their families? That the absence of affordable ways to get to work and affordable resources for childcare are not issues?
Leisure?! Seriously, the editorial says this: “Inflation may also be tilting the scale to leisure instead of work,” because “average hourly earnings are rising fast — up 4.6% from a year ago and 7.4% at an annualized rate.” This is followed by the one of few truths to be found in the entire editorial: “But wage growth after inflation has been declining for many lower-income Americans, who spend more of their incomes on food and energy.”
This editorial is begging for the government to take a more heavy-handed approach. It’s the classic argument between different wings of the bosses. “The lack of workers has clearly become a drag on the economy, slowing production and contributing to supply-side strains. Ships are backed up at ports in part because there aren’t workers to unload and transport them to where they need to go. Home builders say labor and material shortages are delaying projects and increasing prices. The economy is still growing, but not nearly as much as it should be as the country emerges from the pandemic’s depths. The Atlanta Federal Reserve this week downgraded its GDP estimate for the third quarter to 1.3% from 6.1% in late July.”
Please, the Journal begs, don’t make this worse. “Now Democrats want to add another $5 trillion in spending and taxes that will do more of the same. Workers and the economy will be far better off if this legislation dies.”
What the Journal editorial board is really saying is that capitalism will be better off if workers are forced to participate in a daily system of exploitation centered on the minimal reproduction of their labor power, and that the economy will be better off if it remains based on the maximum expropriation of surplus labor. They want workers to believe that is in their own interests.
The Journal comes down on the side of the argument among the ruling class that wants capitalism’s pillars strengthened sooner. The “Bidenomics” $5 trillion the Journal bemoans is predicated on the same idea of buttressing those pillars. It’s mostly an argument about timing, and stemming the tide.
And what of those workers who’ve decided to live the “life of leisure” rather than showing up for crappy jobs? Maybe the unemployed will be joining the picket lines sprouting up across the country as we see a level of labor combativity unlike any in some time. That’s what happened in the 1930s, and it scared the bejeezus out of the capitalists.
Revolution is a matter of timing, too.