Even a Speck of Marxism Has Powery

Book Review

Zweig, Michael: The Working Class Majority. America's Best Kept Secret. Cornell Press, Ithaca and London, 2000.

Economics professor Zweig proves that one can write an interesting and progressive book from only the first kernel of truth exposed by Marx and Engels in their manifesto of 1848: that economic classes have different, often opposing, interests. Without using Marxism's definition of class, and leaving aside the great power of historical materialism, Zweig nevertheless sheds a great deal of light on American society. The examples of capitalist oppression that he cited at the end of the Clinton presidency had become much more chronic by 2006.

The book starts out strong. The author asserts the true existence of class struggle in America. He uses facts and figures to demonstrate that he is unarguably right. He also offers good explanations as to how Americans have been brainwashed into believing that class struggle is nonexistent or irrelevant. He makes it extremely clear that capitalists are trying to substitute the idea of income levels for classes, and that even union publications take the bait when they call their members "middle class."

P4: "Class is one of America's best-kept secrets."

Zweig doesn't use Marxism's definition of class, but substitutes a shortcut version of class divisions based whether or not a group of people has power. Capitalists have great power over workers and workers have little or no power over capitalists. The third large "middle class" is caught between the powerful and the powerless. This distorted and simplified definition of class is nevertheless very handy, as Zweig demonstrates.

Zweig demolishes the popular notion that America is classless and that Americans can easily move from one class to another. He uses real, contemporary, facts and figures to demonstrate the great power inherent in realizing that it is the class struggle that defines society. Of all Zweig's contributions, this simple realization of class struggle in America is the greatest.

"Team Concept," "ESOP's," and American "Class Mobility"

In the year 2000, when Zweig's book was completed, many American industrial workers and their union leaderships had been completely bamboozled with the "team concept" idea of production. Workers and management would work together and everybody would benefit. Zweig's class analysis shows that "team concept" was a pipe dream, and events since 2000 have shown him correct. Without realizing it when he wrote the book, Zweig provided far more powerful examples of unbridled corporate power than he might have imagined. On page 13, he uses the Saturn automobile factory in Spring Hill Tennessee as an example of "team concept," "classless" cooperation in industry. He couldn't have known that General Motors management smashed those hopeful dreams in a cloud of dust in 2005 when they unilaterally announced the closing of the plant.

Another example of "classless" production popular in 2000 was the idea that Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOP's) did away with class relations between employers and employees. On page 14, Zweig uses United Airlines as a good example of why ESOP's don't really change class relations between employers and employees. In 2006, United Airlines is one of several airlines using bankruptcy to rob their employees!

Zweig also demolishes the false and anti-class idea, a foundation of Reaganomics, that "A rising tide lifts all boats." Page 64 has an excellent graph showing that workers' real wages have declined in reverse proportion as their production of wealth went up!

The Real "Middle Class"

I can really appreciate Zweig's attempt to define the amorphous "middle class" that lies between the capitalists and the workers. Far too many analysts shoot for a precise definition, when in fact, the middle class is in constant flux. Usually, their ideology pursues that of whichever class is on the ascendancy, but the only generalization that really holds true is that their convictions and actions are unpredictable.

American Union Problems

In just a few short sentences, Zweig nails the recent history of American's unions. He correctly analyzes the surrender of class consciousness in the CIO and its tragic consequences. Pg 52: "…the CIO had gone far enough [to the right] that it was possible to consolidate the two federations into one, the AFL-CIO. Although it was hailed at the time as the creation of a powerful new force for labor, the AFL-CIO steadily declined in strength for the next forty years…" Actually, the "steady decline" had turned into a rout after 40 years, and it continues today to be serious, after 50 years.

The author goes on to show how class analysis clarifies contemporary political developments. Pg 141 begins a chapter on "Power and Globalization" that attempts to explain the havoc wreaked on the international working class by world imperialism. This section would have been more powerful had Zweig not conceded the capitalist "frame" of terminology. Instead of calling the bullying of weak nations by transnational corporations "imperialism," Zweig uses "trade" and "globalization."

The "Impartial" American Government

Beginning on pg 153, the chapter "Power and government" explains how the capitalist class has brought government more and more openly into its direct service. Pg 154 "The Reagan Revolution," marks the distinct change in government policies that occurred in 1980. Pg 155: "Reagan's assault on government was part of a period of intense class warfare by capital against labor." Same page: "The tax burden on workers in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution actually went up with the first Reagan tax cuts, while the share of income paid by the richest 1 percent went down by almost half."

As noted, the book limits its focus on proving that classes exist and that some form of class analysis helps us understand what is happening. It would have been more powerful with an accurate definition of class. It would have greatly enhanced its message if it had based the analyses on changing historical materialism, and particularly if the idea of qualitative historical change had been included. Zweig hints at a remedy for that omission at the last of the book. On the final page, page 173, with a quote from John Stuart Mill, Zweig gives a nod to the idea of human history that is forever changing in a positive direction. In his final statement, he says that capitalist domination over workers should eventually be "added to the list of past injustice and tyranny."

--Jim Lane 1/27/06

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