Karl Marx got lost in dreams of leading a proletarian revolution that would make him a hero to the working class. It’s an old fantasy of the intelligentsia — the wise and articulate leader of the unwashed, the Great White Father among the natives. Watch Hillary Clinton shoring up votes among African-Americans to see the contemporary version.
As for Marxist economics, it was never more anything more than a misunderstanding. I remember working in a paper box factory in my youth and thinking in Marxist terms of how any improvements we made in the manufacturing process would be gobbled up by the owners as “excess profits.” Then it suddenly hit me — they would much more likely be passed along to consumers as lowered prices. In fact, it made much more sense and was much fairer that improvements should be passed along to consumers in general rather than monopolized by a few workers that happened to be employed there at the time. It was this general permutation of wealth that made capitalism such a great system.
There is one place where Marx’s theories do resonate, however, and that is the way societies become divided into classes according to people’s relationship to the “means of production.” In Roman history you was the obvious split between the aristocracy, represented in the Senate, and the proletariat (that was where the term originated) represented by the tribunes. When land became the principal source of wealth in the Middle Ages, we had a landed aristocracy that awarded itself all sorts of privileges and titles while opposing and disparaging new ways of making a living, such as commerce.
In English history, this great clash was fought out in the 17th century by the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. The Cavaliers represented the old land-based courtiers while the Roundheads were the new Puritan merchants making their living from buying and selling. The Puritans proved to be more powerful and won the war, although both classes retained a role in British society. In France, on the other hand, the land-based aristocracy held on for a century longer, hiding behind the king and government favoritism. When the monarchy finally fell in 1789, the “First Estate” (the landowners) was paying no taxes, something that roused everyone’s ire and cost many an aristocrat his head.
The reason I bring all this up is that I think there is a similar split developing in American society today. It’s nothing quite so drastic as might lead to revolution or civil war, but it becoming quite visible and producing a tension that is beginning to shape our politics.
I take my text from Grist, one of those global-warming-is-everything web publications that is inevitably described as “liberal.” John Upton, who bills himself as a "science fan and green news boffin,” begins as follows:
Plastic crap that Americans are accustomed to importing from Asia is increasingly being manufactured right here in the U.S. — all thanks to the country’s crappy fracking boom.
Chemical and plastics companies use natural gas as a raw material, and now they can get it cheaply in the U.S. As Living on Earth reports, “The fracking boom has led to renaissance for the chemical industry, particularly for plastics makers in Louisiana, where the plants are major employers.”
Other states are seeing growth in the plastics business too. Asia’s largest chemical producer, Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group, has announced that it’s planning to spend $2 billion expanding its manufacturing operations in Texas.…
This isn’t the first questionable manufacturing boom to be fueled by fracking. Ammonia factories are also being built and expanded to take advantage of cheap natural gas.
So who are the people who can take such a cavalier attitude toward what was once the principal way of making a living for the vast majority of Americans? There have been many attempts to name them. Irving Kristol talked about the “new class.” Herman Kahn tried to attach the term “symbolists.” Richard Florida has tried to flatter them by calling them “the creative class.” In any case, they are people who deal mostly in information, not material goods. They were once limited to journalists and writers and bureaucrats and employees of think tanks and non-profit organizations, but they have since expanded into the world of entrepreneurs and websites and information technology — which makes them a powerful force in the American economy.
So we seem to have developed a class division in American society where the educated portion of the population — those with college degrees and beyond — are dedicated to closing down the old manufacturing economy — or sending it abroad at least — while substituting things that are “clean and green,” even though they may not be as productive or lead to many jobs and may in fact need huge government subsidies and mandates to keep them afloat. The Obama administration has obviously fallen for this scenario hook, line, and sinker and is doing everything it can to shut down the old fossil-fuel-based, blue-collar economy, all the while — amazingly — passing itself off as a champion of the working class.
Charlotte Allen gets at all this in her cover story in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, “Silicon Chasm.” Surveying today’s Silicon Valley, she finds a knowledge-economy empyrean where the tech masters live behind iron gates while middle-class manufacturing jobs have been hollowed out and all that’s left is Mexicans doing yard work and laboring on hotel cleaning staffs.
At one point it was hoped that these new tech magnates would embrace free enterprise and be enthusiastic about spreading the wealth among the lower echelons. Cypress Semiconductor founder T.J. Rogers, Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy, and Paypal founder Peter Thiel were early promising candidates. But they have now been pushed aside by eco-conscious poster boys such as Google’s Sergey Brin and software billionaire Tom Steyer, who is bankrolling the campaign against the Keystone Pipeline.
Allen sums all this up nicely:
Two years ago the Occupy movement of progressives raised a battle cry against the “1 percent,” who were supposed to be striped-pants, Republican-voting tycoons lifted from the Monopoly board. What they didn’t know is that the 1 percent actually wear rubber shower sandals, ride bicycles — $20,000 bicycles — and vote Democratic and green, green, green.
It isn’t all that different from what Marx predicted. If the “means of production” consist of software codes that only a handful can understand, then few jobs will be created in the intermediate range. And if those who have mastered the means of production actively campaign against every other way of making a living, then society will indeed be riven by vast differences in wealth. The only thing that Marx could not have predicted is that the new plutocrats would be able to adopt the protective coloring of liberal rhetoric, hollowing out the old manufacturing sector and strangling it in red tape, even as they posed as “men of the people” on a mission to “protect the planet.”