By Greg Godels

October 27, 2021

“Exploitation” is a word seldom encountered today. Its common usage roughly spans the heyday of socialist thinking, especially the era of Marx’s influence over socialist theory. It was and should still be the cornerstone of Marx’s critique of capitalism.

But the idea of labor exploitation– capitalists taking uncompensated advantage of workers’ labor– has largely disappeared outside of the Communist Parties. It is more common to find the word attached to sexual or animal abuse, cultural appropriation, or other sins outside the bounds of class. But class exploitation, the structural exploitation once fruitfully viewed as the centerpiece of capitalist relations of production, the basis for the era of capitalism, is out of fashion with today’s Western left.

That’s not to deny a concerted outrage over inequality of income and wealth; certainly, the broad spectrum of opinion from the center to the left decries the vast gap between the obscenely wealthy and those equally obscenely impoverished. But there is little attention paid to how that enormous chasm is produced and continually reproduced. Nor is there much imagination of life without it.

Hopefully that might change.

A recent article in Time magazine– a popularization of a scholarly paper from the staid, ultra-conservative Rand Corporation– declares dramatically in sensational headlines: “America’s 1% Has Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%.”

The Rand paper, Trends in Incomes From 1975 to 2018 argues with a great deal more nuance, but equal force, that if the thirty-year (1945-1975) trend of household income distribution had been maintained over the next forty-two years (1976-2018), the bottom 90% would have earned $47 trillion more over that period!

Put another way, the bottom 90% would have received 67% more income than it actually did in the one year, 2018– the final year of the study; those below the upper 10% threshold would share $2.5 trillion more than they actually received for their labor, $2.5 trillion in 2018 that went instead into the bank accounts of the highest 10% of earners.

As the authors of the Time article emphasize, “This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation…”, but a rigorous conclusion based upon the premise that 1945 to 1975 was a period of relative stability of inequality. That is, in the thirty-year post-war period, the gap between the rich and everyone else grew little and declined little. The French elites celebrate a similar era in Europe with the expression “les trente glorieuse”– the thirty glorious years of relative prosperity. The majority maintained its lower status, but lost little ground to the rich.

While the Rand authors, C. Price and K. Edwards, do not explain this ‘equilibrium’ of inequality, an explanation is readily at hand. The Western powers were in an intense, winner-take-all competition with socialism and its friends after World War II. The ruling classes made an unspoken compact with respective labor movements in Europe and the US that they would encourage the idea that labor’s income would move proportionally with increases in productivity, effectively “freezing” social inequality in place.

In return, labor was expected to accommodate, even participate in Cold War foreign policy and embrace capitalism. In the political sphere, this compact guaranteed that the urge to reform or change would be contained in the Democratic Party or the European Social Democracies. Where mass Communist Parties emerged, the securities services would go to any length to aid and abet the center-left in denying them access to power.

In the US, the informal compact produced the purging of the left in the labor movement, cultural and intellectual conformity, and entrenchment of the two-party system.

As Price and Edwards demonstrate, the stability of income distribution, of class-income differences, changed dramatically after 1975. Income distribution shifted sharply to the benefit of the top 10% and even more so to the top 1%. The shift was so great in the post-1975 period that the authors calculate that 90% lost $47 trillion by 2018. But, again, they have no clear and comprehensive explanation, beyond noting that the “rise in inequality has been attributed to many different factors including technological advancement, decline in union membership, and globalization.”

While these conventionally cited factors may well have played some role in the shift in income distribution, they were hardly sufficient to explain the extremely sharp turn that Price and Edwards show.

Rather, the reversal came with the profound economic crisis of the 1970s: the oil crisis and intractable stagnation and inflation, two conditions that conventional economics (then Keynesian-influenced) could not even conceive of as occurring together. The concurrent fall in the rate of profit forced a radical reexamination of policy on the part of the ruling class (in the US as well as Europe). Welfare policies and class accommodation were jettisoned for a raw, no-holds barred assault on the income and living standards of the 90%.

With the decline and disappearance of Soviet and Eastern European power, a decade or more later, the last elements of the post-war compact with labor and its allies were also jettisoned. The US ruling class perceived no need for any further accommodation with US working people. Capital mobility and the availability of an enormous new pool of skilled, but low-cost labor capped the period and placed enormous pressure on the incomes of Price and Edward’s 90%. Labor unions received this shock treatment and, without a militant left, struggled to respond. New logistical technologies smoothed the way for a sharp increase in global trade, investments, and job migration.

While Price and Edwards struggle with an explanation for the qualitative changes that occurred after 1975, Marxist theory offers a ready answer. Capital mounted a concerted offensive in the 1970s resulting in a massive increase in the rate of exploitation in response to a profound crisis and the failure of the policies of the immediate postwar era to answer that crisis.

With the rate of profit under siege, the US ruling class unilaterally cast aside the Cold War compromises and ruthlessly attacked the income and living standards of the working-class majority. Wages have been essentially stagnant since the 1970s, while productivity and national product have grown, filling the coffers of the corporations and the bank accounts of the rich.

Characterizing this period as the rise of “neoliberalism,” as much of the left favors, obfuscates the deeper processes that spawned the dramatic shift in the rate of exploitation, the appropriation of an additional $47 trillion from one class to another in a forty-two year span. It wasn’t an intellectual victory in the policy wars, a spark of evil intent, the domination of the political right, or a temporary or contingent aberration of capitalism, but a strategic adaptation– accepted by nearly the entire ruling class and its political minions– in the appropriation of surplus value– the exploitation of labor– that accounts for the dramatic gains of the capitalist class and its hangers-on.

Though they were agents in the change, Carter, Reagan, and Thatcher were only the faces of another stage in capitalism’s course correction. Those who think that the super-exploitation exposed by Price and Edwards can be tempered by a return to the “glory” of the immediate postwar period fail to understand the logic of capitalism. That period has long given way to a new dynamic.

But the Price and Edward revelations succeed in exposing an important point. If the super-exploitation of the last forty-two years– the appropriation of the $47 trillion– is recognized as unjust, as the Time headline suggests, then the “ordinary” exploitation of the previous period is equally unjust since both lead directly to inequalities.

There is no escaping the conclusion that the economic inequality that more and more people are rejecting is itself deeply rooted in capitalism and its profit-generating, exploitative mechanism. Surely the scope of super-exploitation that Price and Edwards spotlight should challenge the legitimacy of capitalism, not only as it is today, but also how it was before it took a vicious turn.