Tuesday, June 21, 2011

WalMart, the Supreme Court and Marxism without Revolution

In Marxism without Revolution John Quiggan provides an interesting analysis of the current socio-economic situation: There isn't a proletariat calling for revolution in the Western world. But there clearly is a ruling class, a top 1%, which controls wealth and power. Based on the insights from several books, most notably Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich, Quittan poses the following question: How can we more effectively oppose the rule of this 1%? (Note: for a wonderful, interactive graph displaying the changing proportion of US income allocated to different groups through time, click here.)

As Cohen puts it, the revolutionary working class postulated by Marx had to satisfy four conditions:
1) They constitute the majority of society;
2) they produce the wealth of society;
3) they are the exploited people in society;
4) they are the needy people in society.
. . . . 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the reason to do so.

It seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.

On the other hand, there clearly is a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centered on control of capital, but including plenty of people whose source of power and wealth is derived from their job rather than from capital income. On a narrow definition, it includes the top 1 per cent of US households which now receive 25 per cent of all income and hold around 35 per cent of all wealth. More broadly, the top 20 per cent of the population has, in broad terms, increased or maintained its share of national income as the top 1 per cent have become richer. This broader group controls more than half of all income and wealth.

. . . .

Coming back to Cohen’s conditions, the case to be made against the top 1 per cent is that:

1) They constitute a tiny minority of society
2) they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute
3) they exploit their control over capital for their own benefit
4) they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs

. . . .

The existence of those structures mean that a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent. The key elements are fairly obvious, and include

  • reimposition of control over the financial system
  • restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance
  • shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state
  • repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier
With those modest goals in mind (particularly the idea of making it easier for workers to organize and pressure for their needs) it is useful to consider the recent WalMart supreme court ruling. The broad evidence clearly shows that women are, on average, paid less, are less likely to be salaried, and hold lower-ranked positions than men. This is true even though there is less turnover among women, meaning that the average female employee has been working at Walmart significantly longer than the average male employee. You can see the data for yourself here.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the plaintiffs' lawyers had improperly sued under a part of the class action rules that was not primarily concerned with monetary claims. But they were divided 5 to 4, along ideological lines, on whether the suit met a requirement of the class action rules that “there are questions of law or fact common to the class.” Stated another way, the conservative majority among the court used the case as an opportunity to up the threshold for class certification. Room for Debate has an interesting mix of informed reactions to the ruling.

In simple terms, the underlying issue involves the 'homogeneity' of the class. Class action lawsuits are typically done on a contingency basis and are expensive. Thus, in situations where the individual claims are likely to be small, lawyers who undertake this work need to come up with a large class in order to justify their upfront expenses in bringing the case. In the WalMart case the average damage was approximately $1100 per year. So the lawyers devised a scheme that would let them claim 1.5 million potential class members in order compensate for the relatively low per-person claim. And, as a result, the individuals in the class were much more diverse in their personal situations than, for example, individuals exposed to asbestos on the job.

So, how does this all relate back to Quiggan's analysis? One of his suggestions was changes in laws to make union organizing easier. Or, to put the point more generally, to make it easier for the less-powerful to advance their position. This is exactly the opposite of what has happened in the Supreme Court ruling. By upping the bar for what counts as a homogeneous class the Court has made it harder for large, relatively heterogeneous classes with small individual claims to organize in order to redress their grievance.

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