The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Social and Political Situation as American Capitalism Moves toward Wider War

Mar 24, 2024

Life expectancy in the U.S. population is dropping, and has been since 2010, with most of the decline concentrated in the laboring population. That’s no quirk in the statistics. It is symptomatic of the widespread attacks the capitalist class has carried out on working people over the last five decades.

Cutting Jobs ...

Capitalism has always searched for ways to pay less for the labor power it consumes. And its first way to do this has often been to cut jobs, and to force the workers who are left to take on more work. Pretending that it is technology taking the jobs, the capitalists organize and reorganize the work to eliminate as many positions as they can.

The issue is not, as the media have put it recently, that workers are disappearing. Jobs are disappearing.

Even government statistics show it. Only 62.5% of the working-age population is in the labor force today—that is, either with a job or actively looking for work. This figure has been going steadily down since 2000. Today it has fallen back to where it was in the early 1970s.

And that is only part of the picture. Of those with a job, 10% are temporary workers, often unable to count on their jobs from one day to the next; 20% are either gig workers or part-time workers—many of them working two or even three jobs to survive.

(By the way, the U.S. Labor Department, which puts together these figures, considers a person employed if he or she has worked as little as one hour in a given week. And how many one-hour jobs does it take to survive?)

The reduction of jobs did not hit different parts of the labor force evenly. The share of the labor force made up by prime-working-age men has gone down, while older people, women and children have all increased their share.

The ordinary functioning of capitalism produces older people who need to work, women who need to work, children who need to work. On the other hand, the labor of prime working age men costs the capitalists more. In this country, ever since the 1950s, men of prime working age have been finding themselves less needed. But with the ongoing economic crisis, that has been more true, as the capitalists increased their use of the more vulnerable parts of the working class.

Older workers, in particular, have been pushed back into the labor force. As capitalist society reduced and eliminated pensions, while degrading the worth of Social Security and Medicare, work has become more of a necessity, even for the oldest. Most of the increase in people working since Covid receded was concentrated in the age group over 55, many of them over 65.

Similarly, women have steadily increased their share of the work force. Today, 47% of workers are women, 53%, men. (In 1995, it was 40% women, 60% men, and in 1950, it was only 30% women, 70% men.)

Some people celebrate women working as a sign that society is opening up to women. Maybe this would be true—IF women were paid the same as men. But women’s wages have not caught up. The fact is, women’s increasing access to jobs coincides with the capitalists’ desire to expand a part of the work force whose labor costs them less. (It’s for the same reason that a sizeable part of the capitalist class is pushing to bring in more immigrants, whose lack of legal standing makes them particularly vulnerable.)

On a much smaller scale, but still significant, more children, including some less than 10 years old, are working. We are not—not yet, anyway—back in the 19th century when child labor was rampant in even the biggest companies. But it is on the increase today. In 2023, the Labor Department found 5,792 underage children working, nearly double what it had found three years earlier. That number, 5,792, may look insignificant, compared to the workforce, which is over 167 million people today. But the Labor Department can’t pretend that it is on the lookout for violations—it never inspects 99.99% of the workplaces. The 5,792 children it found only hint at the numbers of children actually pulled into industry. The young migrant child killed in a Mississippi poultry plant, the child who lost part of his arm in an Iowa meat processing facility, the 16-year-old farm boy who died in the machinery of a Wisconsin lumbermill—these three did not enter major corporate workplaces alone.

When it does find a violation, the Labor Department cites “equally” the employers who put children in such situations and the parents or guardians who let their children go to work. It’s government’s usual role, diverting attention from the system that runs the madhouse onto its inhabitants.

Reducing Wages ...

Over the last five decades, the capitalists have been reducing the share of income that goes to labor’s wages.

The minimum wage has remained fixed at the same level ever since 2009. In “real terms,” it is less than what it was in 1959. Today, someone earning minimum wage for a 40-hour week, 52 weeks a year, with no days off, will earn only $20 more in the year than what’s needed to stay above the poverty line. (This is “poverty” as defined by the government, not by reality.) Yes, only a very small proportion of the work force is paid at today’s low level—perhaps less than 2%. But having the bottom set so abysmally low serves to pull all wages down.

Overall, wages have been reduced. This does not mean that the actual wage that a given company paid to a given worker was cut—although some of that did happen. Rather the capitalists’ wage bill was reduced. Older wage workers who lost a job were usually unable to find a new job paying wages comparable to what their former job had paid. Newer workers coming into the labor market discovered they were on a completely different, very much reduced, wage track from the one their parents and grandparents had inhabited.

Beyond that, inflation has reduced the amount that any given dollar amount in a wage will buy. In general, the highpoint in wages, in real terms, came some place in the early 1970s.

From 2010 up through 2020, prices were on a steady but not remarkable climb, mostly one to two percent a year higher. But then in three years’ time, 2021 through 2023, wages lost more of their value than they had lost in the preceding eleven years, and inflation became a big issue, making almost everyone aware of the issue.

The problem was not simply inflation, per se. It’s the fact that inflation was concentrated in the most basic necessities of the workers’ everyday lives. Housing, food, transportation, medical care all saw an explosion in price increases. In three years’ time, new car prices went up 31%, used cars, 40%. Even when cars saw a partial price cut, prices didn’t begin to come back to where they had been, and certainly not to where a worker’s wage could cover them—even with a six-year car note.

As for all the headlines that proclaim inflation is coming down—well, yes, if they mean that the rate of inflation is somewhat less than six months ago. But prices are still going up.

Hourly wages are not the only reason that workers’ income dropped so catastrophically. Today, pension and health care plans are disappearing, except for management and professionals. In this country, unlike most other industrial countries, so-called “social benefits” are not covered socially, but by the individual employer. Social Security, the one exception, has increasingly been losing out to inflation so that by itself, it will not keep most retirees out of poverty. And the cost of Medicare, once touted as the way to extend medical coverage to the elderly, today takes up a larger share of retirees’ income than medical care did before the advent of Medicare.

... The Capitalists Rapidly Increase Their Share of the Wealth

Today, there are 756 billionaires in the country. Taken altogether, this small number of people own 4.48 trillion dollars. This very small number of people can loosely be a stand in for the capitalist class. With the economy they control mired in unending crisis, they have protected themselves by rapidly increasing the exploitation of the working class.

And this is the result: the wealthiest 1% of the population collectively own almost double the amount of wealth that is owned by the 291 million people who make up the bottom 90%.

This massing of wealth in the hands of the capitalist class and their allies has had a vicious impact on the lives of the laboring classes, unleashing poverty’s diseases and social conditions. Malnutrition and obesity, diabetes, high-blood pressure and allied heart problems, elevated maternal mortality, supposedly eradicated childhood diseases—these are all increasing, as are social ills like homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, suicides, and murders among people who know each other.

Put another way, the massing of wealth at the top has led to death at an earlier age for the laboring population.

Shifting Electorate, but the Working Class Still Has No Party

As the sitting president, Biden gets popular blame for the situation in which most working people find themselves. Nonetheless, Trump has his own problems. His disapproval rating, as recorded by the Pew Research Center, recently hit 57% of the whole population, surpassed only by Biden’s 59%. But the 57% who detest Trump come from a different layer of the population than do the 59% who detest Biden.

The issue is not simply, as the media puts it, that the political scene is fractured and people are increasingly antagonistic.

We are witnessing the continuation and perhaps the strengthening of a realignment of the electorates of both parties, a realignment which started decades ago, but certainly speeded up during the last two presidential campaigns.

Sections of white workers, particularly in rural or semi-rural areas, have been drifting toward the Republicans ever since the Vietnam war period. In that earlier period, the Republican Party made inroads by playing on the real grievances white workers had, but they sought to divert white workers’ anger into a racist resentment of the black population or of immigrants. But when Trump entered the scene, he overlaid an appeal based on “class” onto the racism imbedded in the Republican Party.

He addressed himself to “you hard-working Americans, who don’t get the benefit of your own labor.” He delighted in mocking the “elites,” the “Harvard-educated” who “want to tell you how to live your life, raise your own kids.” With the demagogue’s swagger, crossed with a good dose of the corrupt real-estate huckster, Trump cynically denounced the same privileged Ivy-League swamp from which he had sprung, and in which he still plays.

At the beginning, he found a response mostly among white workers, but more recently, he gained support from Latino milieus, and even from the black population—and not only from their somewhat “privileged” petty-bourgeois layers. To both black and Latino workers, he directs propaganda about the flood of “new” immigrants, coming to take their jobs, a campaign which finds a response from both. Polls last fall showed Trump attracting support from over 20% of the black population, and even over 30% of younger black men. Already in the 2022 election, Trump carried some Latino districts in Texas and the Southwest, and in early polls in 2024, he shows continuing gains in support from Latino voters, reaching many more than the traditionally right-wing Cubans.

At the same time, the Democrats have been making their own very pronounced shift, trying to attract the votes of the more privileged and educated suburban petty bourgeoisie. In part, because of the Supreme Court’s overthrow of Roe v. Wade, and the role of the Republican Party since in trying to limit access to and criminalize abortion, this succeeded. It certainly let the Democrats maintain their control of the Senate in 2022. And this has led the Democrats to make the axis of their current campaign turn around issues they think will appeal more to the educated petty-bourgeoisie.

Certainly, there is a chunk of the working class, particularly those in unions, who still think of the Democrats as their party, or at least view the Republicans as the bigger danger.

And most of the more privileged layers of the population still identify as Republicans—if not as Trump supporters. The realignment of the two parties is far from complete.

But today, the Democrats are the ones facing a disaffected working class. They are the ones who “own” the sputtering economy and the wars. They seem to have decided that their best hopes lie in doubling down on the propaganda that they have pushed so far: one, that Biden is the only protection for the “democracy” that Trump threatens, and, two, that Biden’s economic plan is “working”—the proof being that the official unemployment figure is down, as is the official rate of inflation—a playing with statistics that can’t overcome the reality of workers’ everyday lives.

They may also hope to make use of Bernie Sanders’ new legislation calling for a 32-hour work week with 40 hours pay—another election promise, just waiting to be broken. Will the fact that Sanders and Shawn Fain lined up to play the shill for the Democratic party win over some workers? Perhaps.

Nonetheless, the Democrats themselves, by insisting that things are going well, have opened the door for Trump to make inroads in the laboring population. For now, his meetings and speeches touch on the questions that inflame workers: the loss of jobs, the wiping away of some industries, the deep grievances felt by workers, particularly in the semi-rural areas, of a world that has been lost to them, and a resentment of the fact that this government seems to direct its resources to “those people overseas” and their wars. Trump, in fact, plays with the idea that the wars going on overseas pose a threat to people in this country, and he touches the worries that many in rural areas have about what these wars will bring for their sons and daughters, who, with no jobs available, enlist in the military.

The biggest danger in this election is not Trump himself. It’s the fact that parts of the working class recognizes themselves in him.

Regardless of who wins this election, the salient fact which the election illustrates once again is that no party puts itself on the side of the working class, none represents workers’ interests, none proposes ways for the working class to bring its forces together in a struggle to impose its needs on a society intent on accumulating more wealth off the backs of labor.

And none raises the two political issues in which the future of the working class is entangled: that is, an economic crisis, which continues and worsens, pulling the working class further down, and the preparations for a new, global war, which sooner or later will engulf the laboring population of this country, along with the rest of the world.

The World’s Wars Are U.S. Wars

The U.S., for now, may have avoided overt, direct entanglement of its own troops in the wars in Ukraine and now in Gaza. But it is directly implicated in them, and not just through the money and armaments it is supplying, although those are enormous. The U.S. military has also been involved in the policies that created the situations that led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Israel’s attack on Gaza. It is involved, in those wars, in the planning of the battles and wider scope of the war, in the surveillance needed for the planning to be carried out. Even the weapons the U.S. decides to send determine the forms these wars will take. They are U.S. wars, even if the U.S. up until now has been able to hire the warm bodies being used as cannon fodder.

But the population of this country, even if it has watched those wars on the TV or computer screen, in general does not see the role of the U.S. in them, and does not feel threatened by the possibility of where the wars might extend.

Few people in this country, behind the walls put up by the two oceans, have a visceral understanding of what war means. The soldiers who go off somewhere else to fight, perhaps. But not the population. The population has not dealt with what war on its own territory means since the Civil War—or, for the indigenous people, since the so-called “Indian Wars.”

To the extent there is much discussion about these two current wars among the ordinary layers of the population, it seems mostly to turn around money—or rather, what could the money spent on war in other countries do if it were spent here on “our problems.” Sitting in the midst of the biggest, most powerful imperialism the world has ever seen, workers who think this way subscribe themselves to a narrow, fanatically patriotic way of viewing the political situation.

The fact is, the U.S. devotes an enormous amount of money to war, and not just these two wars. Today, in real terms, that expenditure is greater than what the U.S. was spending in 1944, that is, in the wind down of World War II. Today, the U.S. spends roughly 40% of what the whole world spends on war, the equivalent of the amount of money spent by the next 15 biggest military spenders combined.

This is not simply, as both parties would have it, “defense” spending. It is the engagement of the U.S. to impose its order on the world, via the wars going on now around the globe. Beyond that, it is the material preparation for going to another war directly and overtly in the future.

To the extent the two parties push for more military spending, they often do so, treating war as though it were a jobs program, highlighting the areas of the country which benefit from the production of armaments and other war materiel. Biden made the same argument recently when he asked Congress for an increase of money for weapons for Ukraine and Israel.

Such ideas are ways to sanitize war, to make it seem relatively harmless—and maybe it has been for the people privileged enough to crouch behind the oceans’ walls.

But for the peoples in the rest of the world, that is our class brothers and sisters, there has long been no ocean to hide behind—just as those oceans did not protect the young men and women from this country, who enlisted or were drafted in the army and were sent to wars. Forty percent of the vets who were in a war theater in Afghanistan and Iraq came back with permanent disabilities, physical and/or mental. There are four times as many vets from these wars who killed themselves than there were soldiers who died in the wars. And this was true of Vietnam, also.

Can there any longer be an ocean for the people of this country to hide behind? Finally, it’s not the issue. What matters is that the working class begins to understand the reality of tomorrow’s war that American imperialism prepares for workers here and around the world.