Crisis of Capitalism 6: The US Working Class Loses Its Exceptional Status

In the years following World War II, the working class in the United States enjoyed exceptional prosperity. Wages rose, union membership reached historic levels, many families were able to buy homes, send their kids to college, purchase fancy new vehicles, and so forth. Income inequality was lower than at any time in US history.

There were disparities. People of color benefited from this prosperity to a lesser degree than white workers. Women as a group benefited less regardless of race. Even so, many women and people of color were better off than they had been, while typically not doing as well as white males.

This came to an end in the 1970s. There are economists who explain why this is. Those who are interested in knowing why should look it up; it’s beyond the scope of this essay to go into an extended explanation. Suffice it to say that since that time, the US working class as a whole has either stagnated or lost financial ground, with (as usual) women and minorities suffering sooner and more.

During the period of prosperity, the chances that the working class would move towards socialism were nil. It is a basic feature of Marxist-Leninism that material preconditions must be in place for advances to be made. When the capitalist system was able to provide a better life for so many, there was no chance that they would start to agitate for socialism.

As in any scenario, this isn’t a blanket statement. For instance, the great civil rights movement took place during this same time frame. This was certainly an advance for the working class as a whole and people of color in particular. We would argue that the rising tide of prosperity aided in the civil rights movement; people who are struggling for physical survival are more likely to focus on bread and shelter than on voting rights or the quality of education. The black middle class was stronger than it had been and was able to devote time and resources to the political struggle.

Since the 1970s, working class income has taken a turn for the worse. Union membership has plummeted. Wages have fallen in terms of buying power. The minimum wage hasn’t risen in 10 years while costs of all kinds have gone up. Many workers have to have 2 or 3 jobs, and employment security is a joke, for white collar as well as blue collar workers.

This is why socialism is once again gaining ground, especially among the young. It’s not just that people like the avuncular Bernie Sanders. He’s been around for a long time, saying the same things, without having the impact that he has had in the last 4 years. It took a change in real conditions to produce the circumstances that support this development.

So the US working class got to ride the gravy train for a while. They were bought off, while people in developing countries paid the price. That’s changing, and we can see the results.


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