Sunday, April 12, 2015

Paul Le Blanc & the Minimum Wage

Paul Le Blanc is surely one of today's leading Marxist theologians, as an article reprinted in Socialist Viewpoint proves. He will surely object to the noun, preferring instead to be known as a theoretician. And with some justification, since many (including me) use the religious term as a pejorative.

Yet the term fits, typically for two reasons. First, Marxist academics are known for their turgid, unreadable prose, presumably imitating the master himself. This, sadly, is a trait they share with other academics, especially those who call themselves post-modernists. Incoherence leads to nonsense, and accordingly these people are not worth reading.

But on this score Mr. Le Blanc is not typical. He is a limpid, clear-thinking writer who actually has something to say, unlike the reputed theologians of yore.

On the second point, however, I count Mr. Le Blanc as guilty. His article, entitled Explorations in Plain Marxism, is typical of the genre, being a Talmudic exegesis on ancient texts and commentaries. Actual data is used only for decoration, by way of example to illustrate some point. Marxists apparently have never heard of Big Data. Concepts such as statistical significance or correlation are completely foreign to them, as is, for that matter, any kind of mathematical relationship. For a discipline that claims to be scientific, it sure pays short shrift to empirical data.

So Mr. Le Blanc's current essay begins with a commentary on sundry descriptions of capitalism. He eventually settles on a baroque, four-part definition that ultimately says that capitalism is pretty much everything we encounter in today's society. Of course, being a Marxist, he misses capitalism's essential feature, so let me enlighten him with simpler language: Capitalism is an economic order that strives to maximize opportunities for consumption.

That's it. Capitalists (along with their employees) want people to buy things. They all work tirelessly to put more, better, and cheaper products and services on the market. They want people to be rich, happy, healthy, and acquisitive. Shop till you drop! So what's wrong with that?

Mr. Le Blanc's next exegetical effort is to define the working class. Here he acknowledges that the proletarian of yore--the brute laborer--is no longer a relevant part of the economy. Instead, skilled labor, people with some autonomy over their working conditions, and people who are part of the "labor aristocracy," have to be included in the working class, broadly understood. Otherwise the Marxist audience shrinks to the vanishing point.

Further, the relatively petty bourgeois layers of the working class are, in fact, most likely to be the class leaders. Mr. Le Blanc cites Engels as a source, as opposed to more modern authors such as Erik Olin Wright.

And then we get to the most interesting part of the article, under the post-modern heading Identity & Intersectionality. The problem is that workers lack class consciousness. This isn't because they are stupid, but because there are so many other ways for them to identify themselves. Or, as Mr. Le Blanc puts it,

One can begin an understanding of this conception by reflecting on the fact that each of us is conscious of having many different identities that are important to defining who we are. Among the variety of such identities—some of which seem more vibrant to us than others—are (in no particular order): our place within a particular family; our gender; our race and/or ethnicity; our nationality; our age; our religious orientation; our attitude toward specific political ideas; our sexual orientation and preferences; the foods we like; our musical preferences, the clothes we choose to wear, and other cultural inclinations; our favorite hobbies and pastimes; organizations that we happen to belong to; whether we live in a city, a small town, or a rural area; our income level; our particular economic occupation and skill level within that occupation; and the socio-economic class we happen to belong to.
Far from having the contradictions of capitalism driven home--as might have happened during the industrial revolution when workers were just workers pure and simple--today they're Sikhs, Jehovah's Witnesses, Koreans, Masons, Veterans, Grandfathers, bloggers, etc., etc. Being an employee of some company is just not the defining feature of life.

The classical Marxist view is that un-class conscious workers are simply stupid, befuddled by bourgeois trickery into believing unimportant nonsense. But Mr. Le Blanc is wise enough to realize that workers are people, too, and have the freedom to associate with whom they please. It will be impossible to squeeze workers back into a Marxist mold, from whence they'll emerge as identical and interchangeable proletons.

[w]e are many, but our success will be dependent upon a sufficient degree of class-consciousness among a substantial number of us. This class-consciousness, in our own time, must incorporate insights that reflect the realities associated with notions of identity and intersectionality. It must be said that this approach is not entirely new. “The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects,” Lenin insisted.
So let's see how Mr. Le Blanc's Plain Marxism survives an encounter with the struggle du jour, namely the Fight for $15 (an effort to raise the minimum wage). His point that labor aristocrats are the leadership of the movement is true--the leaders are the traditional unions such as the SEIU. Indeed, the actual fast food workers are barely represented.

Second, the movement has had some apparent success--both Walmart and McDonalds have raised wages for their hourly employees. This is probably not because of activism, but rather because both companies have been losing market share. Even poor people--the folks who shop at Walmart and eat at McDonalds--demand high quality products and good service. Neither company has been able to meet that standard recently, and so they need to upgrade their workforce. Rather than hiring casual labor, they want to ditch the "dead-end" job label. They're building a career track for their workers.

This compounds Mr. Le Blanc's problem, creating yet another layer of "privileged" workers who have something to lose if the company goes bankrupt. Yet another layer of "intersectionality."

Richer people--including richer workers--can indulge more interests. They can afford to be Jehovah's Witnesses if they want to. They don't have to work two full-time jobs to earn a living. The problems of "intersectionality" get worse. We're all petty bourgeois now. Organizing a proletarian revolution becomes more and more like herding cats.

More, it is impossible to see how Walmart employees benefit from going on strike. A strike confronts the company with two choices: defeat the union or go out of business. Neither alternative benefits the workers. The Marxists template, that assumes that capitalists and workers are irrevocably opposed, is just wrong. Both of them depend on customers being happy and buying more products. Going on strike doesn't help at all.

So I think Mr. Le Blanc lives in a make-believe land. Admittedly, it's a fun one, with many intelligent participants. But, detached from empirical reality as it is, modern Marxism is more and more akin to a game of Dungeons & Dragons, rather than a true understanding of the world.

Further Reading:

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