Degradation of Labor Leading to New Dark Age

The People
September 9, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 10


"Free labor" is a cornerstone of the capitalist economic system, without which capitalism as we know it could not survive. This follows because "free labor," which is only another way of saying wage labor, is the source of profit, and thereby the source of capital. Without a system of labor under which workers produce an excess of wealth over what they are paid there would be no source from which profits could be drawn, and without profit there would be no way to increase capital.

What this system of wage labor amounts to for workers is that they are "free" to sell their ability to perform productive labor on the labor market to the capitalist who is willing to pay the highest wages.

Furthermore, this system of wage labor is a cornerstone of the capitalist social order. That is, the ability of the capitalist class to keep its place as the dominant and ruling class in society depends on its ability to restrain its greed for profit to the extent that the dominated and exploited working class can maintain an acceptable standard of living. Otherwise workers may come to realize that the capitalist system promises only poverty, insecurity and degradation for themselves and future generations.

Yet, there are certain indications that the increased ferocity of capitalist competition on a world scale is leading to conditions in which the ground is being eaten from under the system of free wage labor. As modern technology continues its relentless sweep through all industries, and as capitalism's requirement for human labor declines, the ability of workers to earn a decent living is declining precipitously. Signs of this erosion are becoming increasingly evident in the developing countries, but also in such highly developed countries as the United States.

Articles on the spread of conditions approaching slavery in industries in Brazil, the Caribbean, Central America AND the United States will be found elsewhere in this issue. Though the instances of virtual slavery cited in these reports represent extreme and, as yet, exceptional instances of the degradation of human labor to subhuman conditions, they also signify a tendency that has always been inherent in the capitalist system.

The spread of modern industrial technology, the vast displacement of human labor, and the resulting competition for jobs that is driving wages down all over the world, is setting the stage for a social catastrophe of enormous dimensions that holds the potential for destroying the capitalist system itself. Indeed, there are indications that apologists for the capitalist system are increasingly concerned that the working class -- as a class -- may come to recognize its situation, and that this could spell real trouble for the system. In its issue of July 17, for example, BUSINESS WEEK, when reporting on declining wages and the probability that wages for all workers will continue to decline for the next 10 to 15 years, summed up this concern with the following:

"Experts of all political stripes have worried about the widening inequality between high- and low-skilled workers in recent years. And the gap continues to swell because blue-collar types are slipping faster than professionals. In the past few years, however, all but the most elite employees have landed in the same leaky boat. If they all come to stress their common fate more than their differences, it could spell trouble for corporations and politicians alike."

The general tendency of capitalism to degrade human labor to subhuman conditions was summed up by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels when they wrote the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO nearly 150 years ago.

"Hitherto, every form of society has been based...on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes. But in order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern laborer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society."

Conditions have changed since Marx and Engels wrote these lines. They have changed in that the tendency they wrote of has intensified. The threat it poses is more ominous than ever before. Not only is capitalism "unfit" to dominate society, it has become a menace to the future of the human race. For that reason, it becomes increasingly urgent that what BUSINESS WEEK suggested with a note of dread comes to pass. That is, it is increasingly urgent that workers become conscious of what they have in common as the victims of the capitalist system of exploitation and human degradation. More than that, it is urgent that they organize the political and economic power implicit in their vast numbers to abolish that system before it leads the world into a new Dark Age in which the vast majority of humanity is reduced to a hopeless level of enforced poverty and social bondage comparable to chattel slavery.

The Socialist Industrial Union program of the Socialist Labor Party is the only way in which the working class can organize its potential power in a way to assure that it can resist capitalist greed and exploitation. More important, however, it is the only way that the working-class majority can gain control over the economy and to operate it in the interests of all society. Achieving that goal is indispensable if workers are to become the masters of their own destinies and thereby remove the yoke of economic despotism that is synonymous with the capitalist system.